Now that President George W. Bush has made the rounds in Europe, how about a "charm offensive" in Latin America and the Caribbean?
Signs of discontent and distrust have been pouring out of the region for years. Some would finger the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, which no doubt revived memories in Latin America and the Caribbean about past U.S. military activism. The problems run much deeper, however, and the Bush administration should hasten to address them.
Michael Shifter and Vinay Jawahar, writing in February's Current History, note that "it is not surprising that Latin America has been undergoing political ferment in recent years. Economic and social progress has been meager, and expectations for a better life have largely not been met." Indeed, during the past 25 years, they say, the only Latin American country that has witnessed a significant increase in its real per capita income is Chile. Meanwhile, some 150 million people in the region live on $2 a day.
Coupled with that lackluster record is the perception that the United States, which should be vigorously engaged, is doing the opposite. Shifter and Jawahar argue that the disconnect is severe, even by historical standards. Latin Americans naturally wonder, "Where is the commitment?"
To some extent, the United States will continue to be distracted by its wars against terrorism and in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those obligations shouldn't preclude extending a more helpful hand to its closest neighbors.
Part one of the charm offensive should focus on strengthening ties. If Bush can make a grandiose gesture toward rapprochement with Europe, he certainly can do so within the hemisphere. That would require more regular trips by Bush to the region and more numerous visits by Latin American leaders to the White House -- and not only on the occasion of noteworthy events.
The U.S. treatment of Latin leaders also should at least equal that of other world figures. This is hardly the time for pettiness or not-so-subtle punishment, as happened in the case of Chile, which failed to support the Iraq campaign. Did Santiago's position cause the signing of a much-anticipated United States-China free-trade accord to be relegated to Miami, while others have taken place at the White House? One wonders.
Part two of the charm offensive should aim at seriously revving up the Free Trade Area of the Americas. It's a travesty that the foundation work completed in the early 1990s has not produced the desired hemispheric free trade. That vision holds the key to solving many of the region's problems. Bilateral and sub-regional pacts are fine, but the real promise of free trade lies in hemispheric participation. Bush cannot afford to allow free trade to languish.
Part three of the charm offensive should emphasize more U.S. interest in and consideration of Latin American and Caribbean concerns and ideas, while leaving ideology at home. I'm not particularly concerned about the rise of certain "leftist" leaders in the region, so long as they adhere to democratic principles, promote free-market economics and demonstrate effectiveness.
Like the charm offensive in Europe, the hemispheric one can't wait.
John C. Bersia is an editorial writer for the Orlando Sentinel.