- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Country by country, Latin America is boiling over. From the fatal police-military clash last week in Bolivia, to the ongoing social upheaval in Venezuela and economic calamity in Argentina, the region is showing signs of distress. Paraguay, Ecuador and Uruguay are tottering financially.
While the Bush administration has wisely made its pursuit of terrorists its first priority, the problems in Latin America have grown severe enough to merit the attention of the White House.
Last Wednesday and Thursday, 23 persons were killed and scores were injured in Bolivia after the military opened fire on a peaceful protest by striking police officers. President Gonzalo Sanchez Lozada, who won in a tightly contested election, has been severely weakened politically by the violence. In Venezuela, more than 200 people have killed or injured since spring, when a coup briefly ousted President Hugo Chavez. The country has become so polarized, that groups against and supportive of Mr. Chavez are arming themselves. That situation remains highly volatile. Argentina, meanwhile, has succumbed to full-blown economic crisis after suffering several years of recession. And on Friday, Paraguay defaulted on some of its $20 million in dollar-denominated debt, as bond holders exercised their right to cash in their bonds before they mature in 2005. Ecuador and Uruguay will have considerable trouble paying their public debt of about $11 billion each.
On Wednesday, President Bush spent 40 minutes with Ecuadorean President Lucio Gutierrez. The head of state of Ecuador, with a population of 13 million and a gross domestic product of $21 billion, ordinarily wouldn't get so much time with the leader of the world's only superpower. But Mr. Bush clearly is interested in supporting stability wherever he can in the Western hemisphere.
A week ago, the White House offered to eliminate tariffs on all imports of textiles and clothing from 34 nations in the Americas by 2010, as part of negotiations for creating a free-trade zone in the Western hemisphere by 2005. The administration also has proposed cutting tariffs on about 65 percent of U.S. imports of consumer and industrial goods from the Americas when the free-trade zone becomes a reality, and to eliminate all tariffs on these goods by 2015. Also, 56 percent of agricultural imports would enter tariff-free once the zone is established.
The Bush administration is certainly on the right track in adopting measures that will allow Latin America to develop economically in the long-term. But it also should consider granting the region more immediate tariff relief, given the scale of current economic.
While Latin America's current economic crises are certainly troublesome, the Bush administration must steer clear of such quick fixes as bailouts, which certainly could cause more problems in the long term. Those troubled nations would best be served with foreign aid that focuses on micro and small businesses rather than large-scale public works projects, for example. The United States clearly has a stake in Latin America's present and future, as Mr. Bush seemingly is aware.

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