Is Washington Losing Latin America?

DRIFTING DANGEROUSLY

Relations between the United States and Latin America today are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Many observers in the 1980s had hoped that Latin America's turn toward democracy and market economics, coupled with Washington's waning emphasis on security matters, would lead to closer and more cooperative ties. Indeed, for a time, the Americas seemed to be heading in the right direction: between 1989 and 1995, Central America's brutal wars were largely settled; the Brady debt-relief proposal (named for then U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady) helped end Latin America's decade-long, debt-induced recession; the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); the United States hosted the hemisphere's first summit meeting in more than a generation; and in 1995 a bold Washington-led rescue package helped prevent the collapse of Mexico's economy. But much of this progress has since stalled, with U.S. policy on Latin America drifting without much steam or direction.

After 9/11, Washington effectively lost interest in Latin America. Since then, the attention the United States has paid to the region has been sporadic and narrowly targeted at particularly troubling or urgent situations. Throughout the region, support for Washington's policies has diminished. Few Latin Americans, in or out of government, consider the United States to be a dependable partner. U.S.-Latin American relations have seriously deteriorated -- the result of failures of Washington's leadership, the United States' uncompromising stance on many critical issues, and the unwillingness of the administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to stand up to powerful domestic constituencies.

The United States is not the only culprit, however. Latin American leaders have also performed badly. Most Latin American governments have only partially completed the political and economic reforms needed to sustain robust growth and healthy democratic institutions. They have mostly neglected the region's deep economic inequities and social tensions. Too often, Latin American governments have only grudgingly cooperated with the United States and one another. Some of the region's leaders have turned to populist and anti-American rhetoric to win supporters and votes.

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