WASHINGTON - El Salvador's President Tony Saca, a close U.S. ally, can scarcely contain his frustration.He calls U.S. politicians ''shortsighted'' for failing to reform U.S. immigration laws. He says Latin American populism is ''a pendulum swing toward disaster'' that deserves more U.S. attention.
''The United States, in my judgment, should invest enormous resources in Latin America, along the lines of a Marshall Plan,'' he said in a recent interview. "Generally speaking, when you want to have a neighborhood that gives you peace of mind, you have to invest in that neighborhood.''
But Saca is unlikely to be satisfied. President Bush has increased aid to Latin America by record amounts and visited Latin America more than any of his predecessors, but his legacy may be the biggest loss of U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere in recent memory.
He remains unpopular and unable to pass initiatives that Latin Americans want, such as immigration reform and free-trade pacts. Trade between South America and China is booming. Governments from Canada to Iran are cutting deals in the region, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has made challenging U.S. interests his foreign-policy mission, through everything from sweet oil deals to a TV news channel that rivals CNN.
''Requiem for the Monroe Doctrine'' is how academic Daniel Erikson put it in an article for Current History, referring to the 1823 declaration by President James Monroe that put the Western Hemisphere off-limits to outside powers.
Think-tank specialists are debating whether Bush, globalization or both are to blame, and whether a change in the United States' unpopular position on Cuba might help. Democrats say the Bush White House has ignored the region.
But the reality is that whoever wins the White House in November will confront a dramatically different geopolitical situation from the one that Bush faced when he was inaugurated in 2001.
''The world has changed in fundamental ways, and the big question is whether the next administration can understand that and adjust to that,'' Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, told a recent gathering in Washington.
''The United States is not as important as it used to be. A lot of countries - I'm talking about Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela - have much more complicated international relations,'' he added. "There are much more options than there were before.''
In the 1990s, most of Latin America and the United States shared a common purpose of promoting free trade, democracy and free-market reforms known as the "Washington Consensus.''
Many Latin Americans, however, became disenchanted with economic reforms of the 1990s and resented the Bush administration's focus away from the region after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Iraq invasion only angered Latin Americans more.
''There was a rejection of Washington Consensus-era policies,'' says Geoff Thale, with the left-leaning advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America. "We haven't had anything to offer in its place.''
At the same time, other countries have stepped up their diplomatic and commercial outreach, with Europeans and Canadians pointing out that their foreign policy is more aligned with Latin America's preference for multilateral actions.
The European Union has signed trade and investment agreements with Mexico and Chile, and is negotiating similar pacts with Central America and the Andean Community of Nations, which includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. The Europeans have also signed an ''Economic Partnership Agreement'' with the 15-member Caribbean Community.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, declaring Latin America a priority of his administration, last summer embarked on a week-long tour of Chile, Colombia, Barbados and Haiti.
He cast Canada, which is close to signing a free-trade agreement with Colombia, as a middle course between the United States' hard-edged capitalism and Venezuela's state-centered populism.
''Canada's very existence demonstrates that the choice is a false one,'' he said.
Canada is the region's second-largest investor, owning assets worth more than $96 billion. The Canadians are in free-trade talks with Caribbean nations and trade more than $1 billion a year with Cuba.
Then there's China.
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Bilateral trade between China and Latin America jumped from $200 million in 1975 to $47 billion in 2005. According to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, between 2000 and 2006 Brazil increased its imports from China six-fold, to $8 billion. China is Chile's second-biggest market.
While seeking raw materials for its industries, China has kept a low political profile, maintaining friendly ties with Cuba and Venezuela but not directly challenging U.S. interests.
China also has historic ties with big left-wing parties in Mexico, Peru and Argentina, writes Argentine scholar Sergio Cesarin in a recent Woodrow Wilson International Center report on China's rise in Latin America.
''When Chinese leaders speak out about their aims and goals in the region, they utilize concepts like growth, mutual benefits, non-interference in internal affairs and, most importantly, development,'' he writes. These are more palatable to left-wing leaders than free trade or free-market reforms recommended by Washington, he adds.
In 2005, Air China started weekly flights between Beijing and Sao Paolo, the first such route between China and Latin America by a Chinese carrier. Presidents Hu Jintao of China and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva swapped visits in 2004.
Since 2005, Chavez and Iran's President Ahmadinejad have visited each other seven times, signing deals on issues as varied as tractor manufacturing and oil exploration and establishing a direct flight between Caracas and Tehran, with a stopover in Damascus. Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have also visited Chavez's allies in Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia.
The United States, of course, remains the hemisphere's dominant power. Brazil imported six times more from the United States than China. Immigrants to the United States sent $45 billion in remittances to their families in the region last year.
Bush administration officials dispute the notion that they've ignored the region.
The State Department routinely lists achievements like a $3.4 billion debt-relief package for the hemisphere's five poorest countries, an ethanol-promotion deal with Brazil and a new $1.4 billion anti-drug-trafficking aid package for Mexico and Central America awaiting congressional approval.
Total U.S. aid to Latin America jumped from $1.2 billion in 2001 to - if Congress approves a budget request - $2.7 billion in 2009, according to the aid-tracking website justf.org.
Bush has negotiated numerous free-trade deals and met his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva nine times. Bush's trip to Latin America last year was his eighth, more than any president in U.S. history.
The free-trade umbrella now includes Chile, Central America, the Dominican Republic and Peru, with Colombia and Panama waiting in the wings.
But all that doesn't impress the critics.
''Certainly, there is no consistent pattern of interest or concern in the administration for Latin America,'' said Riordan Roett, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an informal advisor to Sen. Barack Obama's campaign. "Maybe we can't expect this, but there's been no grand scheme, broader integration between the U.S. and Latin America. We're each kind of going our own way.''
Luigi Einaudi, a former U.S. diplomat and head of the Organization of American States, says the United States would generate more goodwill if it shuttered the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, passed a free-trade agreement with Colombia and stopped deporting 70,000 ''criminal aliens'' every year to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean ill-equipped to receive them.
Some critics say changing the Cuba policy also will help. A new Cuba approach, says Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, would be a ''superb opening toward refurbishing'' the Latin America policy that he describes as "bordering on failure.''
One program initiated by Bush is seen as working: the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which gives aid to countries that pass a set of 17 development indicators, put together by outside watchdogs like Transparency International.
John Danilovich, who heads the program, says MCC is so popular that even Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, an old Cold War foe and Chavez ally, had to admit as much when he visited an MCC program in the northern town of Chinandega.
With Danilovich at his side, Ortega ended his speech at a local plaza with the words "Viva Estados Unidos!''
© Copyright 2008, The McClatchy Washington Bureau