- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

For the Bush administration, the political portents in much of Latin America are not encouraging. In Brazil political restlessness was evident last month when voters picked a leftist, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as their next president.
Today, Ecuadoreans in all likelihood will do likewise by choosing a leftist, Lucio Gutierrez, as their new leader in a presidential runoff.
If elected, Mr. Gutierrez will try to do what the past two elected presidents have not done: complete a four-year term.
He is an admirer of yet another leftist, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who presides over perhaps the most polarized country in the hemisphere.
The shift to the left comes amid chronic instability elsewhere in Latin America.
Once proud and prosperous Argentina faces a 15 percent economic contraction this year. Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, is doing battle with drug traffickers plus two insurgencies on the left and one on the right.
Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo is trying to govern with barely 20 percent support. In Bolivia, presidential candidate Evo Morales campaigned in the summer as a fierce opponent of the U.S. anti-narcotics program. He lost to a more conventional candidate by 1.5 percentage points.
For Washington, perhaps the most worrisome development is the election of Mr. Lula da Silva in Brazil. He is considered potentially the main obstacle to President Bush's grandest goal for the hemisphere: a free trade agreement by 2005. Mr. Bush and Mr. Lula da Silva will meet Dec. 10 in Washington; both sides say they want close cooperation.
Terror is another U.S. worry in the hemisphere, although far less so than in the Middle East and Asia. The Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay border area is seen by the State Department as a "focal point for Islamic extremism."
Such topics were the focus of a gathering of hemispheric defense ministers that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld attended last week in Santiago, Chile.
Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a private research group, is worried about the drift from U.S.-backed economic reforms in Latin America. "I'm very pessimistic," Mr. Hakim says. "There is no clear solution to this. No one quite sees how to restore growth and vibrancy in these countries."
The Heritage Foundation's Steven Johnson says many Latin Americans persist in believing in a "strong leader who will work miracles as opposed to development of public institutions that respond to their needs."
Moises Naim, a Venezuelan who is editor of Foreign Policy magazine, says there is nothing wrong with the U.S.-favored economic recipes: privatization, trade liberalization and deregulation.
He says many governments have given lip service to these approaches but never implemented them. These ideas have become "politically noxious" even though they were never given a chance, Mr. Naim says.
In a speech last month, he noted that, for all its problems, the region is far better off than it was 15 years ago, when "it was plagued by hyperinflation and a debt crisis."


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