- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2001

Ambassador Peter Romero, former President Bill Clintons assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, steps down this week. He spoke with reporter Tom Carter about his tenure and what the Bush administration faces in the region.

Question: What do you consider the Clinton administrations greatest accomplishments regarding Latin America, and what challenges does the Bush administration face in dealing with the region?
Answer: I believe the Bush administration has been able to capitalize on constructive relations started with the Clinton administration. They have shown every intention of widening those relationships. President Bush has said publicly many times that he intends to focus his energy and time in this hemisphere and we, as a bureau, believe it is an appropriate focus for our time.
In this bureau, the morale is high. The secretary of state has initiated a number of things in the building that have boosted morale significantly. The focus on our hemisphere is doing wonders for the energy and creative juices of the staff … from me down to our ambassadors, desk officers and technical staff.
There were a number of things done by the Clinton administration and a number of things left to be done.
On the first part of the ledger, there was a robust assistance program put together for the victims of natural disasters — Hurricane George, Hurricane Mitch, $600 million, more or less — consideration on temporary protected status for people from those countries; debt forgiveness.
By way of bilateral achievements, we put together a $1.2 billion program for Colombia for Plan Colombia, which was the right thing at the right time to do.
There were a number of achievements with respect to reducing coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia, by about 70 percent in Peru and in excess of that in Bolivia. We are a couple of thousand hectares short of seeing the end of illicit coca cultivation in Bolivia.
We were able to get the Caribbean Basin Initiative Part Two passed by Congress, and that will give greater parity to the Caribbean nations in terms of textiles.
We were able to initiate bilateral trade talks for Chile that were not only appropriate but long overdue.
We were guarantors and played a part in ending the border dispute between Peru and Ecuador.
We turned over the Panama Canal in a seamless transition, and we have negotiated with four countries for landing rights. Consequently, counternarcotics will be as good if not better than it was from Howard Air Force Base in Panama.
The summit process is very alive and well, and a good dialogue with hemispheric leaders needs to be done.
Q: On the second part of the ledger, what needs to be done?
A: President Bush has stated his intention to begin talks with Congress on getting fast-track authority. It is absolutely critical for this part of the world in dealing with the trade agenda we have. We have every intention of concluding a bilateral trade agreement with Chile by the end of the year.
We are committed to renewal of the Andean Trade Preferences Act and to seek an enlargement.
But the main focus on the trade side is the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, FTAA, by January 1, 2005. We have talked to a number of countries about bilateral trade agreements, but our response has been, "Lets get FTAA moving ahead."
Q: Is Brazil and Mercosur a problem?
A: It is more of a question mark, with respect to the next government of Brazil and its stance on trade. Certainly there are some in Brazil who are concerned that FTAA will not benefit them, and whether an FTAA would include agricultural goods. Ironically, agricultural interests in this country are behind us and in support of FTAA and fast-track, and see it as a benefit to U.S. agricultural interests.
I think FTAA will be a part of the debate that accompanies their election campaign. I hope Brazil will realize that with FTAA, Brazil would only benefit and an enormous amount of capital will flow into Brazil.
Q: For the last 10 years, democracy and free trade have taken hold in Latin America, but there is a growing concern that Latin American nations — Venezuela, Peru had its problems, Ecuador, Bolivia — are turning to authoritarian governments that are democracies in name only. Is there a trend here?
A: Notwithstanding 10 years of reform, there is still the worst income distribution in the world in our hemisphere. Much needs to be done to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
There are limited tools at our disposal. One is the delivery of social services, health education and infrastructure by governments.
To stimulate economies and provide jobs, we know that political reform needs to go hand-in-hand with the opening of markets. You have to be able to deliver. The leaders need to be able to deliver. You need more reform, not less, to make this work.
Q: Lets take Bolivia as an example. They have done everything right. They have eradicated coca production and implemented all the neo-liberal trade reforms demanded by the international financial institutions and the United States, but their economy is a wreck and people are in the streets.
A: The challenge for all of us in the public sector is to narrow the lag time between making the difficult decision to reform and implementing it, and the amount of time it takes to get the attention of the international community and attract capital.
Bolivia has done many of the right things. The challenge is to narrow the gap, to show the Bolivian people that there are benefits to the austerity.
Leaders must lead into reform. They have to accelerate their reform efforts. And we have to support that. Economic integration must go in parallel with political reform, reform in the judiciary, law enforcement, the regulatory regime, lowering the amount of bureaucracy in doing business across borders so that they can get the benefits.
Q: In theory, that is what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is doing there.
A: That is right, but I would stress the 'in theory part.
Q: What problems does the United States face in Venezuela, in terms of democracy and the fact that it supplies the United States with so much oil?
A: Venezuela was long overdue for liberal reform. Some of those reforms have been taken. The investment climate remains positive, but there are some things that need to be done to assure foreign investors that investing in Venezuela is safe.
In terms of energy and communications, there is a lot of investment in Venezuela. Those U.S. entities invested down there feel comfortable there.
The Venezuelan government needs to do a number of things. It needs to put together a strategy to diversify its economy so that it is not completely reliant on energy. Second, it needs to put together a strategy to make these institutions created by its new constitution independent and have the normal checks and balances you associate with democratic government.
Thirdly, President Chavez needs to understand that while he has the right to travel wherever he wants and say whatever he wants, what he says will have consequences in terms of U.S. perception.
Q: What are the consequences?
A: The consequences, thus far, have been a reluctance on the part of the private sector to invest in Venezuela. Change is good, reform is good, but it has to be within the parameters of the law and the constitution of Venezuela and universally accepted standards of democracy.
There should be no involvement in the affairs of his neighbors without the consent to the elected leaders of those countries.
Q: There are two points of view on Capitol Hill regarding Cuba. One side wants to ease the embargo — and that is represented by the initiatives to allow for the sale of food and medicine. The other side wants to provide $100 million over four years to Fidel Castros political opposition on the island. What about U.S.-Cuba relations?
A: All of us lost all hope that Fidel Castro would change many years ago. What you see regarding the law allowing the sale of food and medicine to Cuba and the draft to provide aid to dissidents and our people-to-people measures during the Clinton administration are all designed to break through the isolation imposed by Fidel Castro on the Cuban people.
There is strong bipartisan agreement in both houses to do all we can to reach out to the Cuban people. It is not easy to do when you are talking about a totalitarian leader.
Cuba just celebrated 99 years of independence, and almost half of that has been spent under the yoke of the Castro regime. That is really sad.
Q: Lets talk about Mexico.
A: Mexico represents the first among equals, and an emerging group of Latin American countries that are more visible on the democracy side, and more willing to play an activist role in foreign policy as it relates to defending democracy, human rights and defense.
In terms of our bilateral relationship, things have never been better. A non-PRI president is able to break all the old paradigms of our relationship, which is good. There is a list as long as your arm of all the things that Mexico and the United States are working on.
In June, there is a meeting on issues related to the border, how to make the border less adversarial, in terms of difficulties crossing, immigration and putting together a guest program that will work.
Cooperation on drugs and law enforcement is very good. And the anti-corruption efforts by President Vicente Fox are historic in nature. President Fox does mean business.
Q: Some argue that Plan Colombia is heavy on the military and light on crop alternatives and other social programs.
A: Those who criticize Plan Colombia as being overly militaristic miss the point. The government needs to fill the vacuums of power in the countryside.
It is nice to talk about alternative development, but if you do not have a government present in these areas, you cannot put these things in place. You have to fill the vacuum.
The big ticket items were helicopters: There is no infrastructure there. There are no roads.
Q: Critics on the other side, on Capitol Hill, say giving the helicopters to the military, which has a history of corruption and human-rights abuses, and not to the police, which has a reputation of being uncorruptible, is a mistake.
A: When I hear that, I say, "That is your point of view; we do not share it. What is your plan?" That is when the conversation breaks down, because there are no alternatives.
They are eradicating coca at a greater rate in the last four months than ever. The peasants are being given the opportunity to sign up for alternative development, and that will accelerate once there is a better security presence. This doesnt happen unless you control the ground.
The Colombian government has also taken some significant steps combating paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas. They continue to distance themselves from the paramilitaries. The military police are even moving against the financiers of the paramilitaries. All of this is taking place with greater respect for human rights on the part of the military.
The graduation of the third counternarcotics battalion last month will enable the Colombians to move to a new phase. They will be able to use three battalions, with helicopter support, to go into the southern part of the country to eradicate coca plants, and provide a government base to begin to take this lost part of Colombia back into the fabric of the nation.
Q: What about Peru?
A: It seems to have been a good campaign. The electoral machinery that was put into place seems to have done an adequate job. We have spent about $7 million on electoral reform and it looks like it yielded good results.
Q: Any final reflections?
A: It has been a terrific five years back in Washington — three as acting assistant secretary and assistant secretary. It is a job that is difficult because of the domestic constituency I have — Hispanics in the United States and border states — that most of the other assistant secretaries in the building dont have.
Lets face it, while some people on the Hill might have views about Indonesia or Bosnia, it is usually not as neuralgic as the views of border governments, or those elected U.S. officials that come from districts with a high concentration of Hispanics. Usually, they have very strong views that they will let you know.
Consequently, while being assistant secretary, I had an enormous ability to effect change for the better. You also have a very large and growing constituency in this country that is growing and needs to be listened to.


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