It may not be apparent yet to most U.S. voters, but U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry is sending Latin Americans the message that he will fight for their interests.
In a speech devoted to Latin American policy in June, Kerry vowed to become "a president of the United States who knows where Latin America is" a reference to the region's low priority since George W. Bush became president four years ago.
Let's face it: U.S. relations with the region have seriously deteriorated under Bush. A recent Zogby International poll found that, 87% of Latin American opinion-makers disapproved of his policy in the region. A Latino-barometro poll found that, nearly a third of Latin Americans had a negative image of the United States--twice as many as four years ago.
To be sure, Latin America is not an immediate priority in the post-Sept. 11 era. And the administration has paid attention in one crucial area, free trade. It has brokered packs with Chile, Central America and is on the verge of hammering out another with the Andean nations. But the president doesn't seem to understand that a democracy that benefits a rich minority, which is what free trade has largely done so far, is a formula for turmoil.
When open markets and lax regulations led to Argentina's collapse, Bush practically turned his back. And Argentina was once a regional powerhouse, in theory important to the United States. Never mind the administration's handling of Cuba and Venezuela, which has ranged from saddening to comical.
A three-year study by the United Nations released this year showed that 55% of Latin Americans would support an authoritarian ruler if doing so would improve their lives. At a time when most Latin Americans are questioning democracy for its lack of economic benefits, what does Bush do? He decided to spend almost as much on military-police aid in the region as on economic development--US$874 million, just $72 million less than on helping the region turn its economies around.
"The balance in aid is now shockingly equal," Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental think tank, told me. "There would be greater emphasis on economic-social issues with a Kerry administration."
Kerry seems to understand that the failure to confront increasing poverty--43% of Latin America's estimated 500 million inhabitants are poor--will erode...