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US Failing to Engage Latin Leaders
Published on Monday, December 4, 2006 by the Toronto Star / Canada
US Failing to Engage Latin Leaders
Indifference boosting region's `pink tide,' some analysts warn
by Tim Harper
 
WASHINGTON - The neighbourhood is getting noisy again.

Yesterday's re-election of a re-energized Hugo Chavez in Venezuela leaves Washington even further estranged from its onetime allies in Latin America, with the so-called "pink tide" growing in numbers and influence.

Chavez was easily returned for at least six more years by voters, giving him more latitude and power to spread his populist anti-American brand of Latin socialism.

One week earlier, Rafael Correa, who openly aligned himself with Chavez, won a resounding election in Ecuador.

A day before the Chavez election, Raul Castro stepped in for his gravely ill brother during belated birthday celebrations the clearest sign yet that Washington will not be able to exploit any power vacuum in Havana in the post-Fidel Castro era.

This gallery of anti-Bush leaders also includes Bolivia's Evo Morales and the socialist warhorse Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, leaving some analysts convinced there is a historic disconnect between a U.S. State Department obsessed with Iraq and the greater Middle East and the priorities of voters in its onetime sphere of influence.

The growth of anti-Americanism, they say, is a product of a Bush administration that drifts between bellicosity and indifference in the region, does not understand the changes in its backyard and is unable or unwilling to engage enemies, perceived or real.

It has also fuelled calls for a more robust diplomatic approach by Ottawa to try to bridge the gap between Washington and Latin capitals.

Many are now urging U.S. President George W. Bush, in the limited time he has left in his second term, to switch gears and engage these governments.

"Venezuela is ripe for negotiations," says Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "but this administration has never been able to distinguish between Chavez's bark and Chavez's bite.

"He is a roguish, rakish fellow, but he is not a terrorist or any of the other things Washington believes he is."

Birns says if the Bush administration is edging to direct talks with enemies Iran and Syria in a bid to find a way out of Iraq, it makes no sense to shun direct talks with Chavez, the major player in Latin America.

"Chavez would welcome such talks," Birns maintains.

The Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan New York think-tank, urges Bush to ignore Chavez's theatrics and talk to his government on issues such as border security, energy, drugs and public health.

The study, authored by Richard Lapper, says U.S. meddling in the country, specifically its tacit support for a failed 2002 bid to overthrow Chavez and the August establishment of a special CIA unit to collect intelligence on Venezuela and Cuba, merely stokes the anti-American feeling on which Chavez thrives.

"Moderating rhetoric, vetting the impartiality of U.S. democracy support programs and proposing bilateral talks will help the United States shed the perception that is policies are guided by partisan fervour rather than principled pragmatism," the think-tank report says.

Carl Cira, director of the Summit of the Americas at Florida International University, says it is time Washington learned there is no percentage in "shouting and beating our chest.

"You can call this a tilt to the left, or a tilt to populism, but only Chavez has the economic autonomy to stick his finger in the eye of the U.S.," he says.

The apparent stability in Cuba under Raul Castro points to another failure of U.S. foreign policy, says Julia Sweig, an expert on that nation.

Writing in the January edition of Foreign Affairs, she says the long-held Washington belief that in the post-Castro era on the island the pent-up demand for democracy would lead to revolution and ultimately a strong democratic trading partner with the U.S. has proved to be illusory.

"That moment has come and gone," she writes, "and none of what Washington and the exiles anticipated has come to pass."

Because of its "wilful ignorance" of the reasons behind the durability of the Castro regime, it left itself with no meaningful tools to influence Cuba, she says.

"With U.S. credibility in Latin America and the rest of the world at an all-time low, it is time to put to rest a policy that Fidel's handover of power has already so clearly exposed as a complete failure," Sweig says.

A November study by the watchdog Government Accountability Office questioned the value of the $76 million (U.S.) funnelled from the government to Cuban dissidents over the decade ending in 2005.

It found 95 per cent of grants were awarded without competitive bids and some pro-democracy money was used to buy a gas chainsaw, Nintendo Game Boys, Sony PlayStations, a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates.

Michael Shifter, an analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said from Ecuador the 43-year-old Correa, who harshly criticized Bush and said he will not sign a free-trade agreement with Washington, will govern that country as a more moderate leftist, like Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or Chile's Michelle Bachelet.

Still, he says, Washington has ignored Latin American concerns about poverty and inequality.

"There has been an unprecedented disconnect in recent years between Washington's priorities and those of Latin American capitals," Shifter says.

"Canada is well-positioned to play a constructive role in reducing the distance, given its sensitivity both to Latin America's social concerns and to Washington's agenda."

Copyright 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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