- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2002

With a Republican-led Congress taking over in January, Latin American specialists anticipate changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba and other nations in Latin America a region that often complains of being overlooked by Washington.
"The conservative shift in Congress highlights a widening gulf between issues preoccupying Washington and those of far less concern, such as Latin America's populist movements that target U.S. policy as one of its adversaries," said Mark Severino of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
The conservative move in Washington contrasts with a drift toward left-wing populist governments in Latin America. Apart from Cuba, left-wing governments control Venezuela, Brazil and lately Ecuador.
Supporters of the U.S.-embargo against Cuba say they are optimistic.
"Hopefully with the new lineup, the Bush administration can get away from playing defense and go on the offensive and actually push for a democratic revival on the island instead of just relying on the embargo," said Dennis Hayes, executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Mr. Hayes said he also hopes the new Congress will curb the recent push for normalizing relations with Cuba.
"The easing of the travel ban can't just mean another beach destination for U.S. tourists during spring break. The new Congress has to also guarantee real democratic ideals on the Cuban soil," Mr. Hayes said.
Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and an avid supporter of easing the embargo on Cuba, said the elections will "put a temporary wrinkle in our effort to normalize relations with Cuba."
The Republicans will likely push for more initiatives such as Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion aid program to improve Colombia's military training, eradicate narco-trafficking and boost the economy.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to underscore the Bush administration's commitment to Plan Colombia during a visit to Bogota this week.
One test for the new Congress will be President Bush's expected nomination of Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for Latin America.
In the last session of Congress, the Democratic-led Senate refused to hold hearings on Mr. Reich, a conservative who fled Cuba as a child with his family, forcing Mr. Bush to give Mr. Reich the post with a recess appointment.
Despite expected strong Democratic opposition, Mr. Reich is likely to be confirmed when Congress reconvenes in January.
"Democrats who oppose Reich's ultra-right Cuban stance and question his qualifications, will nevertheless find it difficult to prevent his confirmation by the conservative-driven Senate," Mr. Severino said.
Minimal changes in policy toward Brazil are predicted.
"Although a few Republicans openly objected to [the election of Brazil's new president, Luis Inazio Lula da Silva], cooler heads will prevail once he takes office, said Sean Carroll, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group based in Washington.
Brazil is a key nation in the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) sought by the Bush administration.
"The Republicans will surely push for more free-trade initiatives under the FTAA that would further benefit the U.S., as Brazil and the U.S. are currently co-chairing FTAA negotiations," Mr. Carroll said.
"Given the ideological differences, the Bush administration will nevertheless work closely with Brazil," he said.

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