If I were a senior U.S. State Department official and had to write a confidential mid-year report on the state of affairs in Latin America, this is what I would submit to Secretary of State Colin Powell:
"As you are well aware, Latin America is in serious trouble. I'll spare you the economic details Argentina's worst crisis in history is spreading to Brazil and Uruguay, political violence is crippling Colombia and Venezuela, etc. which you are getting separately from our Bureau of Economic Affairs.
"And I won't waste your time citing the political problems we face. Just in recent days, Bolivia's leftist radical coca growers' leader Evo Morales emerged as a leading political figure in that country; violent anti-privatization riots toppled the top pro-free market figures in the Peruvian Cabinet, and leftist candidate Luis Inazio "Lula" da Silva continued with his wide lead in the polls for Brazil's Oct. 6 elections. I understand the Bureau of Political Affairs has already briefed you about these developments.
"What I wanted to bring to your attention today is another issue: weak presidents. Latin America, once known as a land of strong caudillos, is probably the world's region with the weakest governments. In my entire career, I have never seen so many presidents with such low approval ratings at any given time.
"A new Latin American poll conducted by Cima-Barometro Iberoamericano, which includes several Gallup affiliates, confirms my worst fears. It shows that a majority of presidents in the region are below the 30 percent popularity rate that pollsters consider necessary to lead effective governments.
"The poll, conducted in April and May, shows the alarmingly small percentages of respondents who rated their countries' presidents as 'very good' or 'good':
"Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde, 16 percent.
"Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, 20 percent.
"Bolivia's President Jorge Quiroga, 26 percent.
"Colombia's President Andres Pastrana, 9 percent.
"Ecuador's President Gustavo Noboa, 32 percent.
"Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, 10 percent.
"*Uruguay's President Jorge Battle, 27 percent.
"Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, 5 percent.
"Only President Vicente Fox of Mexico and President Ricardo Lagos of Chile got positive ratings of 45 percent or more, which are comparable to traditional U.S. or European presidential approval rates, according to the Cima poll.
"Granted, some of these figures look somewhat low compared to other polls, which give Venezuela's Chavez, for instance, about a 30 percent approval rate. Cima pollsters say this is because there are several ways of measuring presidents' popularity rates, and the one they used in this poll asking people to pick between a 'very good,' 'good,' 'regular' or 'bad' rating produces lower approval rates.
"Just as troubling, political parties are equally discredited. The poll shows that public trust in political parties is only 8 percent in Argentina, 6 percent in Brazil, 6 percent in Bolivia, 12 percent in Chile, 19 percent in Colombia, 19 percent in Costa Rica, 6 percent in Ecuador, 21 percent in Mexico, 10 percent in Peru, 11 percent in Venezuela and 10 percent in Uruguay.
"Mr. Secretary, these are dangerous trends. They suggest Latin America is becoming a fertile breeding ground for messianic dictators. That's bad news, because it could lead us to a new cycle of authoritarian rule, violent protests, political turmoil, capital flight, greater poverty and long-term political and economic instability.
"What should we do? We must think boldly, and re-focus our policies.
"First, we should de-emphasize our calls for more privatizations and government cuts, and focus on trade. We should stress that as has happened in Chile, China and Southeast Asia their best hope to grow is through greater exports and open trade. This will demand a greater effort on our part to open our own markets to their agricultural goods, which we should do.
"Second, we should be less skeptical of democratic political solutions that don't mirror our own political system. Perhaps more thought should be given to French-style coalition government formulas, congressionally appointed prime ministers or other ideas that can assure better governance.
"Third, we should engage in a more active public diplomacy. Since Sept. 11, there is a vacuum of U.S. policy in the region, which leftist global-phobic groups are filling with off-the-wall arguments that most often go unchallenged.
"I may expand on my recommendations in a forthcoming report, should you wish so. For the time being, I wanted to alert you about this latest poll, and to suggest that we focus more of Washington's attention on this region, before it explodes on our faces.
"Thank you very much for your attention, and on behalf of all of us at our long-term planning staff, I wish you a wonderful summer vacation."
P.S.: Any similarity between this fictional letter and any State Department report is purely coincidental.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.