LOS ANGELES -- Out here on the left coast, where mudslides 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 that 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 that our neighborhood is in deep trouble.
Latin America has been languishing in the backwater of U.S. foreign policy for over a decade. In the 1980s, Central and South America were 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 that swept from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. But when the Evil Empire collapsed, American 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 by 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 under-funded 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 rates climbed throughout the hemisphere, so did disaffection with democratic governance -- and the flow of illegal immigrants into 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, 9-11 changed everything.
Now, three and a half years into the global war on terror, it's crucial that the administration and Congress focus on our southern neighbors. The problem is much bigger than people sneaking across our borders seeking jobs. In all the countries Rice visited -- and their neighbors -- free enterprise is in decline and socialism is ascendant -- even in Chile, long one of the strongest economies in the Southern Cone. And in some, the security situation is acute.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.