Latin lament

Posted: Apr 29, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 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. 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 now become a major source of violent crime in the United States.

 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 stepchild, has banned U.S. currency from his island "paradise" and gained a new benefactor, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's oil-rich, leftist "president." While  Rice was visiting the neighborhood, Chavez was in Havana, inaugurating 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 engine of anti-Americanism in the hemisphere. Though many believe his 1998 "election" was rigged, 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, and he now talks of a Latin American Exclusive Trade Zone and a multinational "Bolivarian Army" to counterbalance "U.S. economic and military imperialism."

 Last week, Chavez ousted the last five U.S. military advisors from a program that had been in place for 35 years -- claiming that the Americans were "waging a campaign in the Venezuelan military ... criticizing the president." American petro-dollars have enabled Chavez to buy advanced Russian fighters, lethal helicopter gunships and 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 it was 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 Dr. Henry Kissinger to head a bipartisan Commission on Central America and tasked the panel -- which included 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 dispatched 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 get worse in Latin America, President Bush should consider trying this formula again. Our leverage may be different than it was in the 1980s -- but the tools are the same: a presidential commission and a brave vice president. And he can always consult with the man who walked into the lion's den in El Salvador -- his dad.