With All Eyes on Iraq, the Americas Crumble

EDITOR'S NOTE: The deaths of more than 23 people in Bolivia during protests and riots is but one sign of forces that threaten to tear apart Latin America, writes PNS Associate Editor Andrew Reding. Yet Washington's policies toward the region are making things worse, not better. Reding (areding@earthlink.net) is senior fellow for hemispheric affairs at the World Policy Institute in New York.

While Washington focuses almost all its attention on a country half a world away, the Americas are falling apart. The recent slaughter of police and civilian protesters by Bolivian troops is but the latest in a long string of warning signals. And misguided U.S. policies are squarely to blame.

Bolivia is in some ways a microcosm of what ails the region. Latin America has by far the highest degree of inequality of any region of the world. One reason is that the poor -- mainly indigenous and Afro American populations -- continue to be without meaningful access to basic services, including education. Absent domestic and foreign public investment to equalize opportunities, market forces tend to accentuate the gap between rich and poor rather than spread prosperity throughout the society.

In Bolivia, most of the Aymara population remains barely literate and bound to the land. As it has for centuries, it continues to cultivate the coca plant. Traditionally, coca leaves were merely chewed for the mild high they gave the consumer. Today, however, the leaves fetch a much better price from traffickers who process them into cocaine for the U.S. market.

As in Colombia and other Andean countries, the United States has responded with aerial eradication of coca crops. It is arguable whether this has any impact on the availability of cocaine in the U.S. What is unarguable is that it is robbing the poor of their livelihood. No other crop will fetch anywhere near the price.

While offering negligible levels of direct foreign assistance, the United States is indirectly putting a budget squeeze on La Paz, through conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The attempt by President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to meet those constraints by raising taxes triggered the recent violence, and has caused much of the middle class, including striking police officers, to join coca farmers in protests demanding his ouster.

Compounding the damage was the White House statement following the La Paz massacre, reaffirming President Bush's "strong support" for the discredited president. That support is in sharp contrast to the administration's condemnations of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela following similar shootings of demonstrators.

To Latin American eyes, Bush's inconsistent behavior is a sign of acute partisanship: Sánchez de Lozada's ties are with the elite, whereas Chávez is a populist who appeals to the poor. Bush is seen as trying to export a born-again Reaganite ideology that favors the wealthy over the poor to Latin America, where the gap between rich and poor is already explosive.

The explosion has already occurred in Colombia, which is torn by civil war, and in neighboring Venezuela, which is on the edge of civil war. Tensions are festering in Argentina, which suffered an economic collapse after the Bush administration made a deliberate decision not to extend the sort of lifeline President Clinton had earlier offered to rescue Mexico. Argentina had been the United States' most loyal ally under President Carlos Menem in the 1990s; now, after being betrayed by Washington, Argentines have become stridently anti-American.

A comparable shift is underway in Brazil, where voters recently elected socialist Lula da Silva -- a longtime critic of U.S. policies in the region and the world -- to the presidency in a landslide. Brazilians are frustrated by the failure of U.S.-led globalization and market liberalization policies to alleviate poverty. And they are angry about protectionist Bush administration trade policies that discriminate against Brazilian steel and citrus exports.

Even Bush's much-touted personal friendship with Mexican President Vicente Fox is fraying. The Mexican foreign minister recently resigned over the failure to secure a deal on migration. Fox is now suing the United States at the International Court of Justice to stop the execution of Mexican nationals, and his normally conservative National Action Party is proposing to change the country's official name from "United States of Mexico" to just plain "Mexico" -- symbolizing its exasperation with its northern neighbor and NAFTA partner.

When even conservative Mexicans begin questioning their relationship with the United States, it should act as a wake-up call at the White House. Current policies are fomenting rather than alleviating Latin America's socioeconomic pressures. This is not only undermining plans for hemispheric economic integration, but fanning the flames of anti- Americanism in the United States' own backyard, undermining the goal of ensuring "homeland security."

Andrew Reding is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, where he directs the Project for Global Democracy and Human Rights.

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