- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

President Bush proved his mettle today by visiting Peru in the wake of Thursday's lethal car-bomb attack. Terrorists had tried to wage psychological warfare on the Peruvian people and send a sinister message to Mr. Bush through the bombing, which killed nine people. But Mr. Bush countered with a pithy message himself: "Two-bit terrorists aren't going to prevent me from doing what we need to do, and that is to promote our friendship in the hemisphere," he told reporters in the Oval Office. "You bet I'm going."
Mr. Bush's tour of Latin America which also included a stop in Mexico and will bring the president to El Salvador on Sunday will represent the start of Mr. Bush's fresh engagement of the region. Although the Bush administration has rhetorically highlighted Latin America's geopolitical importance to the United States, the White House has failed to take concrete steps to demonstrate its stated commitment. One measure, on which the White House had staked much, was the ill-advised amnesty for illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico. Thanks to the efforts of Sen. Robert Byrd, who is blocking it in the Senate, the president will not be able to tout that. Certainly, Mr. Bush's tour is a promising step in the right direction, but the administration must quickly follow it up with decisive action.
Terrorism in Latin America, which is increasingly linked to narco-trafficking, is quickly becoming an international threat. According to a study by the Heritage Foundation: "Too few realize that Latin America, not the Middle East, was the world's leading region for terrorist activities in 2000 and that drug-traffickers and guerrillas are increasing their ties with and financing international terrorism." Alarmingly, the poor economic conditions that conspire against government attempts to combat terrorism could get worse this year. According to the Heritage Foundation's study, economic growth in the region "will likely slow in 2002 along with a decrease in global economic growth and the U.S. recession."
For this reason, the White House must reclaim its leadership on global trade. Unfortunately, Mr. Bush made his trip to Peru without sucessfully prodding Congress into renewing the Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA), which allows Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia to ship 6,000 products to the United States tariff-free. These preferences expired in December and amid controversy over an expansion of the preferences; the deal was renewed in February for only 90 days.
Mr. Bush should also seek to neutralize speculation regarding the CIA's alleged links with former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos, who is currently being detained in Peru on corruption and drug-trafficking charges. Peru's foreign minister, Diego Garcia Sayan, urged the United State to declassify its documents regarding Mr. Montesinos' activities during the 1990s, a reasonable request.
The Bush administration must take a lead in helping Latin America combat terrorism by bolstering transparency and accountability. It should also allow the region to empower itself economically by expanding trade ties. Mr. Bush demonstrated guts and commitment by visiting Peru today. Let's hope this is only the beginning of more vigorous engagement in the days to come.

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