- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2000

Distractions and unproductive interventions around the world have weakened America in various ways. Not paying attention to our own neighbors has made us even more vulnerable. Latin America has become the most crucial region for American foreign policy.

This region can be split up into the major vortices and eddies of turmoil that demand attention. Vortex states are those countries whose sociopolitical, economic, health, and security dynamics impact America directly. Eddies are states whose importance causes America to adjust its course. The vortexes of our Latin American policy exist first in Mexico and then in Colombia. Their geographic location, coupled with multifaceted ties to the United States, makes them infinitely more important than far-flung missions like Kosovo.

In a recent speech, Gov. George W. Bush, Texas Republican, said, "In my state, the bonds of culture and trade between the U.S. and Mexico are strong, and this is the future of our entire nation."

Of all the Latin American states, Mexico stands first amongst equals. Aside from the 3,000-mile border we share with Mexico, it is the bottleneck gateway for 520 million people. Now, a surge of people from the south has aggravated problems about illegal immigration, business and natural resources.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has not substantially helped ease this crunch on our southern border. Jointly, our economic vulnerabilities grow. For us, it is typified by the transfer of U.S. businesses to Mexico, and Mexican state-owned Pemex Co. supplying the U.S. with 13.7 percent of our total oil requirement. This, while Mexico's populous industrial super centers like Mexico City and Monterrey still lag behind the economic power curve.

Opportunistic political corruption resulting from 71 years of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule, and a boom in narco-activity has further disrupted pluralist democratic reforms and free enterprise operations.

As for the other important vortex, Colombia's status as South America's oldest democracy is in peril due to a well-armed narco-guerrilla insurgency, an out-of-control paramilitary, and weak political will on the part of the nation's president, Andreas Pastrana.

Wealth continues to flourish in Colombia for the nomenclatura, with narco-businesses providing substantial capital. However, as the violence continues, a decline in general prosperity is accelerating while "dark-side capitalist" practices like increased narcotics activity, extortion, and kidnapping have occurred. The ranks of their government are plagued by corruption and direct or indirect support for narcos and paramilitaries.

While the Colombian National Police (CNP) has acted as a bulwark against collapse of the government, it is slowly caving in to mounting pressures. Public disgust with Mr. Pastrana's strategy of concessions has resulted in major protests. Compounding the problem, the collateral violence has affected Panama and Venezuela, sucking those countries into additional turmoil.

The eddies are Chile, Venezuela, and Brazil. Chile, as a positive eddy, has made strides in the last decade, holding consecutive peaceful elections. Its economy is one of the strongest in the region. Violence has been checked, as rhetoric between the left and right does not reach previously vitriolic levels. Venezuela faces the exact opposite, experiencing a major crisis as a result of President Hugo Chavez's manipulation of the working class and recent disastrous floods. A populist "Bolivarian" appeal brought him to power in 1998, masking a grab on the country's institutions. Alarmingly, America now imports nearly 14 percent of its oil from Venezuela, making it one of our four largest suppliers.

Lately, heightened tensions made the 28 May elections an important turning point for South America. Given Mr. Chavez's desire for unrestrained power, Venezuela might slip back toward authoritarian politics while modeling itself after Communist Cuba.

Finally, Brazil is a giant about to implode, endowed with resources but plagued by dysfunction.

On the periphery are Caribbean islands like Haiti and Puerto Rico. These areas represent the dichotomy between democratic institutions and continued instability. Puerto Rico is the assimilation of some of the best features of Anglo / Latino strengths, giving America a delicate perch in the Caribbean. Juxtaposing this is Haiti, which is still a dangerous place six years after the failed American involvement.

The rest of the region produces important situational moments, requiring periodic, focused American attention. An example of this phenomenon is Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who narrowly agreed to hold second round elections against populist Alejandro Toledo. Similarly, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay simmer as internecine conflicts spread under vacillating leadership. These states might go down the path of viable democracy, or slip into authoritarianism through our neglect.

The next U.S. president must begin a proactive and multidimensional policy toward Latin America that grasps region's significant value. He must first engage Mexico comprehensively. Failure to engage Mexico immediately and correctly will result in a loss of traction throughout the entire region.

Then, in a concerted way, America must interact regionally with an interlocking strategic vision.

In a worst-case scenario, the hemispheric problems will deteriorate to where we will reach a negative threshold, where any initiative in the region becomes counterproductive. Early and aggressive action will prevent that scenario. We cannot deal with the rest of the world with our backyard in disarray.

F. Andy Messing Jr., a retired major in the Special Forces, is the executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation (NDCF) and has advised Gov. George W. Bush of Texas on defense and foreign affairs. Lorenzo R. Cortes is the Latin American An

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