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Sweig: Bush’s Latin America Trip 'Ineffective'

Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 13, 2007

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Julia E. Sweig, CFR’s top Latin American expert, says that President Bush’s trip to five Latin American nations “went as badly as I expected it to.” She says that ten to fifteen years from now, people may see this trip as the “nadir” of U.S. policy in Latin America. What the trip demonstrates, she says, is how “the traditional tools in the U.S. policy toolbox are increasingly ineffective” as well as the importance of the Latino population’s growth in the United States in formulating U.S. policy.

President Bush’s trip to Latin America is coming to a close. Did it go more or less the way you thought it would, that is, no major deals, many anti-Bush street demonstrations?

Yes, I didn’t expect any big deals. What I did expect was there to be the kind of public protest and revulsion and theatrical response that you saw in the streets even in countries such as Guatemala. Overall it went as badly as I expected it to.

Why did you say “even in countries such as Guatemala”?

Even in a country like Guatemala, which is so dependent on the United States, the president, Oscar Berger, was really willing to openly and publicly challenge Bush on the issue of immigration. What surprised me the most is how strongly President Bush was pushed on immigration by those countries most dependent upon it.

I gather the issue is touched off by the homeland security raid on that leather factory in New England.

Most of the people that were grabbed and deported were Salvadoran, but in Central America, the treatment of one set of migrants is taken personally by the other set in terms of what the experience is in the United States. The Guatemalans, with 10 percent of their population living in the United States, see that as very foreboding.

Every country is unhappy with the United States policy on immigration, and of course none more than Mexico. Is there any likelihood of the president getting his less onerous immigration bill through Congress this year or next year?

Let’s assume the president very much believes in having a humane and rational immigration policy, and let’s assume he wants to put his energy behind it. There are so many other issues clogging Congress’ view of the White House and vice versa, principally Iraq. Then of course there are trade issues, and now you’ve got the sort of decline in political capital of this White House, with the Libby prosecution, now with the scandal around [Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales over the firing of some of the U.S. attorneys. I just can’t imagine the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the Senate finding a way to cut a deal that this White House will support.

What the immigration issue demonstrates—and so does trade, and so do drugs—the three major components of our approach to the region, is how bound up U.S. policy toward Latin America is in our own domestic politics. A lot of stars have to be properly aligned for policies toward Latin America to even get out of the starting gate because they depend so entirely on the political alignments in Congress. That’s key to understanding why the White House finds its hands so tied with respect to Latin America. That’s not to give them an excuse for their own failures of the last several years, but it is magnified especially by what the presidents on the ground wanted to talk to Bush about, and how limited Bush’s room for maneuver is on what those presidents want.

Let’s continue on the President’s tour. I was struck by his visit to Uruguay, mainly because the Argentine president [Nestor] Kirchner had allowed Venezuelan President [Hugo] Chavez to have a field day across the river. Why did Kirchner do that?

Well, because it’s great political theater. Kirchner may have had his nose out of joint somewhat that President Bush didn’t visit him. Presidents in South America and all of Latin America have a choice in terms of how they’re going to deal with Washington, and if they’re not trying to maneuver and manipulate Washington to get something, they’re going to use Washington for domestic political gain. And there’s nothing like George W. Bush as a target for whipping up nationalism and exploiting divisions in the hemisphere.

Kirchner really had nothing to lose by having Chavez come there and do that. Plus Chavez and Kirchner have a relationship that has been developing over the years, through Mercosur and through purchases of Argentine bonds by Chavez. And there was a decision also to tweak Brazil. There’s a longstanding rivalry between Brazil and Argentina, and Bush went to Brazil and not Argentina. Therefore the logical response is to have Chavez come on and put a show on the other side of the border.

On the question of drug trafficking, which of course is the other big issue in the United States, has any progress really been made over the years, with all this money that’s been spent in Colombia and a certain amount in Mexico?

If you measure the success or failure of our drug policy on the access that Americans have to pure and cheap cocaine, the answer is no, because it’s readily available at cheaper prices than when our big counter-drug efforts started at the end of the Cold War. “Plan Colombia” was initially launched in 1998 to eradicate cocaine in Colombia and to reduce access to it in America streets. But the real reason for Plan Colombia was because the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], the leftist guerillas in Colombia at the time, early 1999 and 2000, were gaining strength and it started to terrify SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command] and the Pentagon and Washington and the Colombians themselves. The decision was made that drugs was a great window into rationalizing a big military assistance program for the Colombian armed forces.

After 9/11, the rationale expanded from simply fighting drugs to a combined campaign against drugs and terror and insurgents. I don’t think anybody really credibly says fighting drugs is enough of a reason to have given more than $4 billion in assistance to Colombia. The real reason is to gird up all of that state’s institutions because they were being corroded by not just the FARC but also by paramilitarism, which is what the self-defense forces are called in Colombia, which are very, very closely tied to and funded by drug traffickers.

The Colombian government will tell us they have made great strides, which is true. But right before Bush went there, a big scandal broke that demonstrated that many with paramilitary ties were very close to and were members of President Alvaro Uribe’s cabinet. Most importantly, the head of Colombia’s internal police, who has now been fired and is under investigation, had been giving target lists of individuals in trade unions and academics and others to paramilitary death squads in Colombia.

The United States now is in a situation where we’ve made a series of very tough tradeoffs and we’re very close to an individual who, in his own government, has people close to the death squads. Now that smells of El Salvador, and it also, of course, smells of Iraq. But it’s an ally the United States is continuing to embrace. I’m not sure that this Democratic Party, unlike the party of Bill Clinton, is going to continue to want to support that kind of murkiness in Colombia.

Anything positive as a result from the trip?

I am the first one to applaud the attempt by anyone, including the Bush administration, to reframe America’s approach to Latin America. The traditional trifecta of trade, drugs, and democracy may be necessary but it’s very insufficient to deal with the vast economic inequality, poverty, and political polarization of the region. Bush goes down there and uses words like “social justice” and “poverty” and throws in a little “I feel your pain” and it’s the beginning. It’s not heroic. It’s not even magnanimous coming from somebody who is so widely resented, not just for his policies bilaterally but, more importantly, for his global foreign policies.

Ten or fifteen years down the road, we could look back at this trip as the absolute nadir, and a turning point, after which successive administrations continue to try to reshape the government’s approach to Latin America. But what this really demonstrates is that the traditional tools in the U.S. policy toolbox are increasingly ineffective. There’s an opportunity now to take a look, not just as how an American library or a little bit of foreign aid might enhance America’s image, but to ask a bigger question: “How is Latin America changing us?” That gets us into the question of not the official government-to-government relationships, but all of the official integration that has taken place in the last ten, fifteen years.

How many Latin Americans now live in the United States?

We now have fifty million, ten million of whom are here without proper legal papers, but forty million of whom are here as legal residents. They send over $50 billion dollars a year back to their home countries, mostly Mexicans sending to Mexico but others as well. The flow of people and of capital north and south and the demographic and political and social and cultural implications of that, I think, is transformative. The new direction of U.S. discussions has to be how we adapt to that new reality.

And that gets us right back into the issue of immigration and trade.

The real challenge is a domestic one, of making the case at home to engage with others and maintain our essential features and open society, where capital and people from elsewhere are continually regenerating who we are. If we’re going to substantially improve America’s image in Latin America, the real challenge is a domestic one, of making the case at home to engage with others and maintain our essential features and open society, where capital and people from elsewhere are continually regenerating who we are. It’s really saying to the American body politic: “Globalization is touching you too, and how do we deal with that?” You’re not going to get a Democratic Party with a strong labor constituency embracing a free trade agreement, for example, unless you have the kinds of health care policies, significant wages offsets, and job retraining programs so that when people lose their jobs they don’t feel completely vulnerable. It goes to stopping the evisceration of the middle class. I know these all sound like domestic issues, but these are domestic policy issues that deeply affect how we deal with Latin America.

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