- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 30, 2005

LOS ANGELES.

Out here on the Left Coast, where mud slides are included in weather reports and “the Terminator” governs, people are talking about Condi Rice and her first trip to Latin America as secretary of state. There’s hope she will do “something” about the tsunami of illegal Latino immigrants flooding across our southern border.

In the short-term that’s unlikely, but her high-speed, five-day sprint through Brazil, Colombia, Chile and El Salvador should confirm our neighborhood is in deep trouble.

Latin America has languished in the U.S. foreign policy backwater for more than a decade. In the 1980s, the region was a battleground where freedom confronted tyranny in the last gunfights of the so-called “Cold War.”

The sanguinary East vs. West contest resulted in successful democratic reform and free enterprise movements from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. But when the Evil Empire fell, U.S. investment and economic aid promised to new Latin American democracies was diverted to Eastern Europe and elsewhere.



The first Bush administration, distracted by the crumbling Soviet Empire and then Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, never regained Ronald Reagan’s Latin momentum. The Clinton administration, enamored with building “personal relationships” in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Havana, all but ignored the region. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had to be dragged kicking and screaming by a Republican-led Congress into accepting — but never supporting — “Plan Colombia,” the underfunded effort to prevent the hemisphere’s oldest democracy from succumbing to narco-terrorists.

By the time George W. Bush took office in 2001, a global economic slowdown was already adversely affecting Latin America. As unemployment climbed throughout the hemisphere, so did disaffection with democratic governance. Illegal immigration to the United States jumped dramatically.

Seven months into his first term, President Bush began talking about debt forgiveness, a hemispheric free trade zone and increased support for democratic and legal reforms in Latin America. Then, the September 11, 2001, terror attacks changed everything.

Now, 3 years into the Global War on Terror, it’s crucial the administration and Congress focus on our southern neighbors. The problem is much more than people seeking jobs sneaking across our borders. In all countries Miss Rice visited — and their neighbors — free enterprise is in decline and socialism ascendant. This is so even in Chile, long one of the strongest economies in the Southern Cone. In some countries, the security situation is acute.

• Brazil’s socialist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, recently granted asylum to Lucio Gutierrez, Ecuador’s third head of state deposed in eight years amid charges of corruption. Mr. da Silva also denies persistent reports of radical Islamic groups recruiting and training in the remote Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay tri-border region.

• El Salvador’s internal economic and political disarray has led to gunfire in the hills, abandoned farms and businesses and dismayed foreign investors. Gangs spawned in El Salvador’s chaos have become a major source of violent crime in the U.S.

• Colombia’s indomitable, steel-spined president, Alvaro Uribe, is increasingly threatened by narco-terrorists who find safe haven and covert support in neighboring Venezuela while they wait for “Plan Colombia” aid to expire next year.

• Nicaragua’s pro-U.S. President Enrique Bolanos has lost control of the Sandinista-dominated military. Daniel Ortega — with well-hidden support from “allies” in Caracas — may well win the presidency in next year’s elections.

• Cuba’s decrepit despot Fidel Castro, once Moscow’s illegitimate step-child, has banned U.S. currency from his island “paradise” and gained a new benefactor, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s oil-rich, leftist “president.” While Miss Rice visited the neighborhood, in Havana Mr. Chavez inaugurated a “barter economy” in which Cuba will trade doctors and teachers for Venezuelan oil and consumer goods.

Thanks to near-record petroleum prices, Venezuela — the world’s No. 5 oil-exporter — has become the hemisphere’s engine of anti-Americanism. Though many believe his 1998 “election” was rigged, Mr. Chavez has consolidated power by outlawing opposition parties, severely limiting the press and restricting free speech. His move to nationalize the oil industry was a populist coup. He now speaks of a Latin American Exclusive Trade Zone and a multinational “Bolivarian Army” to counterbalance “U.S. economic and military imperialism.”

Last week, Mr. Chavez ousted the last five U.S. military advisers from a program in place for 35 years — claiming the Americans were “waging a campaign in the Venezuelan military… criticizing the president.” American petrodollars have enabled Mr. Chavez to buy advanced Russian fighters, lethal helicopter gunships, 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles and entertain arms talks with Iran and Communist China.

Though serious, today’s Latin America situation isn’t as grave as in the early 1980s. Challenged by a flood of refugees, rising anti-Americanism, Soviet meddling, a growing security threat and a hostile Congress, President Reagan acted to change the internal and external dynamics.

First he appointed Henry Kissinger head of a bipartisan Commission on Central America and tasked the panel — including members of both houses of Congress — with building a strategic consensus on what needed to be done to assure a democratic outcome in the region.

He also sent the vice president on a secret mission to confront El Salvador’s rebellious military officers when they threatened to postpone elections. The combined effects of the vice president’s courage and the short-lived political accord built through the work of the Kissinger Commission was a dramatic victory for liberty and free enterprise in Central America.

Before things worsen in Latin America, President Bush should consider trying this formula again. Our leverage may be different than in the 1980s — but the tools are the same: a presidential commission and a brave vice president. And he can always consult the man who walked into the lion’s den in El Salvador — his dad.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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