Saturday, February 2, 2008

With Latin America veering left, peril for U.S.

What's unfortunate here with this piece is that it fails to take on the failed project of neoliberalism and suggests that "free" rather than "fair" trade is what enlightened policy should be with Latin America while it is actually the case that fair trade would help tip the balance toward more friendly, democratic relations and leanings. -Dra. Valenzuela

With Latin America veering left, peril for U.S.
By Peter Brookes | Friday, February 1, 2008 | | Op-Ed

Photo by AP (file)

Maintaining - or regaining - America’s influence in our own neighborhood will be a key challenge for the next president.

The perceptions are especially grim these days. Latinoamericanos accuse Uncle Sam of neglecting their needs at the same time they chastise us for unwelcome meddling. And the rise of leftist anti-Yanqui leaders has many Norteamericanos lamenting what they see as a decline in America’s influence to the South.

One anti-American is on his way out, though. On death’s door for months, Fidel Castro has turned running the Cuban government over to his “First Brother,” Raul. Sadly, Havana’s communist cadre will likely retain their nearly 50-year death grip on Cuba.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s caudillo president, Hugo Chavez, intends to replace Castro as leader of the Latin left. Just last week, he urged countries in the region to form an alliance against the United States - proposing that Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Dominica become a unified military force.

Fortunately, many Latin Americans see Chavez more as a hothead than a statesman. But Venezuela still is awash in oil, which Chavez is using to consolidate power at home, bankroll leftist pols across the region, provide cut-rate fuel to amigos like Cuba, buy billions in Russian weaponry and back guerrillas in Colombia.

He’s also chummy with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The real worry is the prospect of Iranian missile or even nuclear (weapon) proliferation to Venezuela.

Castro’s Mini-Yo also hopes to squeeze the United States by cutting off oil shipments. (Venezuela produces 15 percent of our imported oil.)

Happily, Chavez failed to win a key ally when Felipe Calderon won the 2006 presidential election in Mexico, a vital U.S. trading partner. But U.S.-Mexico relations are complicated by thorny issues such as illegal immigration.

Another problem: narcotics trafficking. Calderon has even asked the United States to help fight gangs, narco-gunslingers and corrupt cops.

Then there’s Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega. Chavez backed his campaign, forgave Nicaraguan debt and provides aid. Some worry Ortega still longs for the bad ol’ Sandinista days.

Ortega and Ahmadinejad are buds, too. Ortega has supported Iran’s nuclear ambitions at the United Nations, while Ahmadinejad has promised Ortega hundreds of millions in public-works projects.

And China reportedly plans to invest $100 billion in Latin American and the Caribbean in energy and infrastructure projects over the next decade.

On the positive side of the tote board, democratic Colombia is one of the United States’ closest allies in the region. President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative, has rescued his country from near-failed-state status, fostering economic growth and stability.

But Colombia is still plagued by tensions with next-door Venezuela, a decades-long fight with narcoterrorist guerillas and drug trafficking - plus allegations of human-rights abuses by its military.

So, has the United States “lost” Latin America? Nah.

While some nations, prodded by Chavez’s petrodollars, have moved left, that trend is balanced by positive developments in democracy and free markets.

Latin America’s future will greatly affect our economic prosperity and national, homeland and energy security. Without question, the next - indeed any - American president only ignores Latin America at our peril.

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