- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

It is an article of faith among hemispheric observers that the Bush administration has not paid enough attention to Latin America and the Caribbean. As a result, they argue the region, once so promising, has now become troubled to the point where democracy itself is being challenged, and the so-called Washington consensus is breaking down. Surely, the unnaturally high expectations that the administration created for the region, even before September 11, were virtually impossible to meet. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and saber-rattling with remaining “axis of evil” members Iran and North Korea, have only exacerbated fears that the Western hemisphere has once again been shunted aside by policy-makers.

But, even as the new president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, meets with President Bush on June 20, this view fails to acknowledge that the United States has the most to contribute and the most to gain in the hemisphere by focusing on efforts to achieve the bipartisan vision of a hemispheric community of democracies linked by open markets, respect for human rights and the rule of law. The most potent tool available to achieve this goal is creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2005. Without Brazil — Latin America’s largest economy and a co-chair with the United States in FTAA negotiations — the vision of a hemispheric community will be delayed.

Brazil represents the biggest regional opportunity for U.S. policy-makers, but also the biggest challenge. Mr. da silva is a populist labor leader who rose from the shop floor to take the presidency. He has promised to eradicate hunger in Brazil and to address its huge income disparity, among the highest in the world. Without doubt, these are the right things to do. Still, to be successful, Mr. da silva must find a way to add wealth overall, not subtract it from national well-being or close Brazil to the outside world.

Initial reports are positive. Still in his political honeymoon, Mr. da Silva has pursued a generally orthodox economic policy, with a team that is building confidence on Wall Street and within international financial institutions. Perhaps ironically, Mr. da Silva’s allies on the left are becoming restless, as Mr. da Silva refuses so far to turn his economy upside down to remain faithful to traditional party principles.

The meeting between Messrs. Bush and Mr. da Silva is therefore critical. It follows recent travel to Brazil by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Treasury Secretary John Snow, and travel to the United States by Central Bank President Henrique de Campos Meirelles, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, and Trade Minister Luiz Fernando Furlan. In addition, the United States has one of its top career ambassadors, Donna Hrinak, posted to Brasilia. Clearly, an effort is underway to forge a businesslike relationship with Mr. da Silva, encouraging him to continue the path of reform while finding his voice as a pragmatist.

Mr. da Silva the trade unionist also has the credibility, should he so choose, to join with the United States to conclude the FTAA, much as Richard Nixon, the staunch anti-communist, opened to China. If President Bush looks into Mr. da Silva’s eyes on June 20 and sees a man he can do business with, and vice versa, the political signal will be for both governments, and hence the hemisphere, to complete the regional trade area on time by 2005. But if the meeting is cool or indecisive, the signal for trade negotiators may be delay or obstruction, or a focus on the less productive path of bilateral trade agreements. This would be both a commercial and a strategic defeat for the United States, as well as Brazil, since the FTAA is the primary tool available to lock in democratic gains and needed reforms in the hemisphere while promoting mutual economic growth.

It goes without saying that those of us who care deeply about Latin America and the Caribbean would prefer that the administration take a higher profile with regard to various issues in the hemisphere. Nonetheless, Mr. da Silva’s visit to Washington is an opportunity to strengthen the broader case for hemispheric cooperation and, much like recent presidential meetings in the Middle East, to define a road map for further discussions on trade and investment, and cooperation to address broader issues — terrorism, border security and threats to democracy — of significant mutual concern. As such, it is the best opportunity in many months to get hemispheric relations back on track. If all goes well, it is also a strong signal that, despite recent hardships and difficult negotiations ahead, the most important policy goal in the Americas — FTAA by 2005 — remains within reach.

Mack McLarty was chief of staff to President Clinton and special envoy for the Americas. He is now the president of Kissinger McLarty Associates. Myles Frechette was assistant U.S. trade representative in the first Bush administration and ambassador to Colombia. He is president and CEO of the Council of the Americas.

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