Fixing the mess inherited from the Bush administration will be no simple task for the next U.S. administration. In Latin America, it will be particularly arduous. The reason is simple but paradoxical. George W. Bush raised expectations greatly when he took office and announced that he was making the relationship with Latin America in general and Mexico in particular a priority. He kept his promise for seven and a half months—until 9/11, after which the United States, understandably enough, concentrated all its energies and attention on al Qaeda and Iraq. What was less understandable was that this lasted seven years. And because of this neglect of the rest of the world and the relentless focus on Iraq and terrorism, Bush has become more unpopular in Latin America than any other U.S. president in recent memory. This is all the more paradoxical since Bush has in fact been less interventionist and less aggressive toward Latin America than any other U.S. president in recent memory.

Fortunately, if the next administration wants to change the United States' image and relationship with Latin America, it will have a unique opportunity to do so. As president, either one of the two main candidates, John McCain or Barack Obama, will enjoy a honeymoon with Latin America (and with the rest of the world), both because of his predecessor's dismal legacy and because of the nature of the most critical pending issues in the hemispheric relationship. Four challenges clearly stand out: what to do about the imminent or ongoing Cuban transition or succession; what to do about immigration reform, which is the single most important bilateral issue for a dozen nations in Latin America; what to do about the continuing ascent of the "two lefts" in the region; and, finally, if, as seems likely, the U.S.-Colombian free-trade agreement is not approved by a lame-duck session of Congress (and Obama continues to insist on revisiting the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA), how to deliver on campaign promises while deepening, rather than weakening, these undeniably defective trade covenants.

The next U.S. administration will have to deal with these issues—and others, such as drug enforcement—regardless of the priority it attaches to them. It will prove successful if it recalls that Latin America is living in a moment that combines the best and the worst aspects of its history: growing at a pace unheard of since the 1970s, democratic and respectful of human rights like never before, with poverty and inequality at long last diminishing, but more divided, polarized, and involved in greater internecine and intraregional conflicts than ever before. Washington can help enormously by working to consolidate the positive trends while neutralizing the negative ones.


In Cuba, the passing of Fidel Castro from the scene, as he nears the 50th anniversary of his triumphant entry into Havana and into history, represents an immense challenge for Washington, for Miami, for Cuba, and for all of Latin America. Matters on the island have never been a strictly Cuban affair, and although the evolution of the Castro regime under Fidel's younger brother, Raúl, is unpredictable, the terms of Washington's predicament are quite clear. On the one hand, the United States cannot, as Obama has quite rightly proclaimed, continue with the failed policies of the past half century. Demanding a full-fledged democratic transition as a precondition for normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations is not only a recipe for further failure but also totally unrealistic and unpalatable to Latin America; a large majority of its governments correctly believe Washington should unilaterally lift the embargo, together with travel and remittance restrictions. On the other hand, as McCain has made clear, Washington cannot set aside the question of democracy and human rights in Cuba while it awaits the departure of the second Castro.

Realpolitik and fear of another exodus of Cuban refugees across the Straits of Florida may tempt Washington to pursue a "Chinese," or "Vietnamese," solution to the relationship with Cuba: that is, normalizing diplomatic relations in exchange for economic reforms while leaving the question of internal political change until much later. It should not do this, chiefly because of the regional implications. Over the past few decades, the United States, Canada, the European Union, and Latin America have patiently constructed a regional legal framework to defend and encourage democratic rule as well as respect for human rights in the hemisphere. These values have been enshrined in conventions, charters, and free trade-agreements, from the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to the American Convention on Human Rights and the labor and environmental chapters of free-trade agreements, as well as in the democratic clauses of the economic agreements between Chile and the EU and between Mexico and the EU. These mechanisms are not perfect, and they have not truly been tested. But to waive them in the interests of simply guaranteeing stability in Cuba and ensuring an exodus-free succession instead of a democratic transition—that is, creating once again a "Cuban exception" for reasons of pure pragmatism—would be unworthy of the enormous efforts every country in the hemisphere has made to deepen and strengthen democracy in the Americas. Cuba must return to the regional concert of powers, but accepting this concert's rules. To allow it to proceed otherwise would weaken democracy and encourage authoritarian traditions in the hemisphere—and lay the groundwork for other exceptions that would justify their existence by invoking the Cuban precedent.

Still, the United States must change its policy toward Cuba for three reasons: because the existing policy has not worked; because with the Cold War now over for nearly 20 years, that policy has lost its primary raison d'être; and because, however slowly and painfully, Cuba is beginning to emerge from its long night of distress. The change in U.S. policy must combine values and principles with realism and effectiveness, eventually leading to both the normalization of relations with and the establishment of democracy in Cuba. Holding free and fair elections may not be the primary issue, but nor is it one that should be shelved in the interests of stability. If elections are placed at the front of the agenda, Washington will remain right where it started half a century ago: setting a precondition that will lead nowhere. Although Washington cannot evade the issue of free and fair elections in its discussions with the Cuban leadership, insisting that those elections take place before anything else—trade, tourism, unlimited remittances and family travel—is unrealistic. Elections must instead be part of a comprehensive process of normalization: they can be neither a deal breaker nor a nonissue. Exactly where in the process these elections take place is something that negotiations between Washington and Havana should address in order to make those elections the mutually accepted culmination of diplomacy, not a precondition for initiating it.

Lifting the embargo, as well as travel and remittance restrictions, should be a unilateral act on the part of the United States. Reestablishing full diplomatic relations; addressing the claims on confiscated Cuban property made by Cubans living in Miami; helping Cuba reenter the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Organization of American States; and granting it totally normal economic ties with its neighbor across the straits should be conditional on Havana's initiating a cooperative and fully-mapped-out process for resolving all the issues on the table with Washington and others. Elections should be one of the steps in this process, even if not the first step or even an early one.


Although many Americans believe that immigration is a domestic issue that should be excluded from any international negotiations, such an approach is neither a U.S. tradition nor the view held by other nations in the hemisphere. The United States negotiated its first immigration deal in 1907 (the so-called Gentlemen's Agreement with Japan), had a controversial treaty with Mexico for more than two decades (the so-called Bracero Agreement, between 1942 and 1964), and has kept up immigration talks and made deals with none other than Fidel Castro ever since the early 1960s. And for a significant number of Latin American nations today, immigration is the single most important issue on their agendas with Washington.

This is true not just for Mexico. Although the United States' southern neighbor receives the greatest amount of remittances from its expatriates north of the border of any Latin American country (about $25 billion a year), sends more legal and illegal migrants to the United States than any other country (around 500,000 a year), and has the greatest number of nationals living en el norte (probably around 15 million), it is by no means the only country of the hemisphere for which immigration is a crucial issue. In the Caribbean, Cuba (even now, to say nothing of later), the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica all have a similarly high proportion of their citizens residing in the United States and depend as much on remittances. The same is true for much of Central America: El Salvador has the largest share of its citizenry living abroad of any country in Latin America (more than 20 percent, compared with 12 percent for Mexico), and remittances are by far its most important source of hard currency. Nor is South America exempt from this trend. Eighteen percent of Ecuadorians reside abroad, and large and growing numbers of Colombians, Paraguayans, Peruvians, and Venezuelans live in the United States.

These countries are deeply affected by the current immigration climate in the United States, and they would benefit greatly from the type of comprehensive immigration reform that both McCain and Obama have supported. The Bush administration's regrettable decision to build fences along the U.S.-Mexican border, raid workplaces and housing sites, detain and deport foreigners without papers, and, more recently and more tragically, launch criminal proceedings against workers with false or stolen papers and subsequently sentence them to several months in jail before deportation is seen in Latin America as a hypocritical and vicious offense against societies and governments that harbor some of the most favorable feelings toward the United States in the world. These actions are accurately perceived as futile, nasty, and unfair, and, worst of all, they are conducive to growing anti-American sentiment in many countries. They play straight into the hands of the "anti-imperialist" faction of the Latin American left.

The issue is all the more painful and disappointing since most Latin American foreign ministries know full well that these positions are purely the result of politics. The White House needed, understandably, to beef up the law enforcement and security chapters of the two immigration reform proposals (the McCain-Kennedy bill, introduced in 2005, and the "Grand Bargain" of 2007) in order to achieve passage, but once they were defeated, the concessions to the right wing remained and were put into effect, while the substance of the reforms disappeared. Latin America found itself facing the worst of both worlds. This is considered an even greater grievance now because of the slowdown in the U.S. economy, which is dragging many Latin American economies down with it.

Defining and passing comprehensive immigration reform is not rocket science; it requires straightforwardly intelligent substance and skillful politics. The substantive elements necessary are well known: tightening security at the border but also including gates in the walls currently being built; legalizing, with expeditious and sensible fines and conditions, the 15 million or so foreigners now present in the United States illegally; establishing what Obama has called a "migrant worker program" and what McCain has labeled a "temporary-worker program" that allows a sufficient number of foreigners (they will be mainly Latin Americans, and among them, mainly Mexicans) to satisfy the growing needs of the U.S. economy and American society, with paths both to regular visits home and to U.S. permanent residence. All of the proposals put on the table by think tanks, commissions, and lawmakers over the past ten years say essentially this. The nuances will involve the sequencing, the amount of the fines imposed, and the exact requirements for legalization and for paths to eventual citizenship.

The second component is political will and timing. Bush had it right at the beginning: his willingness to negotiate an immigration agreement with Mexico at the very start of his term was probably the only way to get it done. Backing off, first because of 9/11, then because of the war in Iraq, then because of the 2004 elections, and finally in order to wait for the Senate to produce its own bill, proved disastrous: by the time the two bills were voted on, Bush could no longer deliver the conservative faction of his own party, dooming both. Moving quickly is probably the only way the next president can succeed on this front. Leaving it for later would allow the conservative talk-show lobby to gear up and fight, bullying members of Congress into submission by threatening to blacklist them for the next election. Postponing action would also send a strange message to the rest of the hemisphere: evading an issue on which both candidates have taken a strong and positive stance would automatically translate into insulting the Latin Americans, making cooperation on these matters exceedingly difficult if the new administration chose to revisit the issue of immigration later.

The final component of a bold and viable immigration proposal entails Latin American cooperation and a serious U.S. effort to obtain it. The sending countries in the region—democracies now, thanks in part to U.S. policies—can help curtail illegal immigration with statesmanlike, courageous strategies, if they can show their constituencies that they are getting something for doing so. In addition to U.S. immigration reform itself, that something should include the type of intensive support for development that Robert Pastor described in a recent article in these pages and that the EU offers to its new members. Such support would be in the United States' best interest, not a sacrifice imposed on Washington by shakedown artists south of the border. It would help build up Mexican, Caribbean, and Central American infrastructure, education, rule of law, and security, in an effort to spur growth rates and employment increases that, with time—not overnight—will slow immigration to a level more consonant with the needs of the United States.


Much has been written about the ascent of the left in Latin America over the past decade. In fact, there are two lefts in the region: a modern, democratic, globalized, and market-friendly left, found in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, parts of Central America, and, up to a point, Peru; and a retrograde, populist, authoritarian, statist, and anti-American left, found in Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, in Argentina, Colombia, and Paraguay. (It has been argued that the roots of this division are historical: the reformist moderate left springs, paradoxically, from a revolutionary past, whereas the radical left springs from populist, nationalist, nonrevolutionary origins.) Some of these "lefts" are in power; some barely missed attaining it but may still do so. Over the past two years, it has become increasingly evident that the "modern," or "soft," left is, all in all, governing quite well: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was reelected in Brazil, as was Leonel Fernández in the Dominican Republic; Daniel Astori is likely to succeed his fellow Frente Amplio member Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, as is Martín Torrijos' handpicked successor in Panama; and although Michelle Bachelet has disappointed many in Chile with occasional self-destructive stances, this is only in contrast to her predecessors on the reformist left, one of whom, Ricardo Lagos, seems ready to run (and win) again. Conversely, the other left—represented by Raúl Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua—has proved to be more extreme and erratic than many anticipated. It is no coincidence that the "soft" left rules in countries largely devoid of immigration to the United States and the "hard" left is present precisely where immigration is crucial: Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia.

Herein lies a dilemma for the next U.S. president: how to address the clear rift between the two lefts in a way that improves U.S.-Latin American relations, fortifies the modern left, and weakens the retrograde left without resorting to the failed interventionist policies of the past. Even with Bush's record of not meddling in the region (with the possible but unproved exception of dabbling in the failed April 2002 coup attempt against Chávez), the United States under Bush is more unpopular in Latin America than it has been under any recent administration. (It is worth recalling that, other than Jimmy Carter, every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower, including Bill Clinton, has interfered in the domestic affairs of one country or another in the region.)

It will not be easy for McCain or Obama to repair the damage to Latin America in Latin America: the most effective steps would be to withdraw from Iraq and return to respecting multilateralism. The next best, strictly Latin America-focused steps, are self-evident, if not easily achievable. They require strengthening those governments of the modern left or those of the center or center-right threatened by the retrograde left and simultaneously making it clear to the retrograde left that there is a significant cost to be paid for straying out of line—that is, violating the basic tenets of democracy, a respect for human rights, and the rule of law.

Fortunately, the conditions for repairing the damage are propitious. Unfortunately, the nations of the Western Hemisphere are deeply divided today, among themselves and within themselves. At the same time, however, never in recent times has Latin America been doing so well politically, economically, and even socially, as economic growth and representative democracy are helping many nations reduce poverty and even inequality, the region's traditional bane. One of the explanations for this contradiction stems from the ideological and geopolitical battle under way in Latin America and what this battle could mean for the issues of particular concern to Washington: oil, arms, guerrillas, drugs. The conflict could easily escalate and force a major crisis in U.S.-Latin American relations, particularly as Chávez's rule becomes increasingly precarious at home and his policies become increasingly extremist abroad—especially as no one in the Americas seems willing to stand up to him.

There exists a fundamental asymmetry between the two lefts and, more broadly, between the governments (left or right) in the region that subscribe to macroeconomic orthodoxy, representative democracy, and maintaining a modus vivendi with Washington, on the one hand, and those of the "swashbuckling" left (as the Brazilian minister for strategic affairs, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, has labeled it), on the other. The former are timid and cautious to the extreme; it is no coincidence that it was King Juan Carlos of Spain, rather than a Latin American leader, who finally lost his temper with Chávez ("Why don't you shut up!" he demanded at the November 2007 Ibero-American summit in Chile). These regimes feel no urge to "export" their "model" and seem to be concerned that they could be faulted for flaunting its virtues. Brazil, true enough, seeks to expand its influence in the region and in the world, but this is for geopolitical motives rather than ideological ones. In contrast, the other side has an export strategy and the means to implement it. The retrograde left today can realize a version of Che Guevara's old dream: not "two, three . . . many Vietnams" but "two, three . . . many Venezuelas"—winning power by the ballot, conserving and concentrating it through constitutional changes and the creation of armed militias and monolithic parties. It can finance all of this with funds provided by the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, implementing social policies that are misguided over the long run but seductive in the short run, especially when carried out by Cuban doctors, teachers, and instructors and backed, in theory and increasingly in practice, by arms sent from Russia to Caracas.

The hard left also offers a narrative that is convincing but wrong: the persistence of poverty and inequality can be blamed on recurrent U.S. aggression or negligence, the venality of the private sector, and the corruption and incompetence of prior governments and entrenched elites; the Bolivarian alternative is the solution. Education and health services are brought to the poorest sectors of society via the so-called missions and Cuban cadres. Bountiful funds are available, whether through nationalized natural-resource companies and utilities (Venezuela's oil, Bolivia's gas and telecommunications, Ecuador's telecommunications and oil) or by levying higher taxes or fees on foreign or national businesses (fees on soybean exports in Argentina, the higher electricity rates Paraguay seeks from the Itaipu and Yacyretá dams). Price reductions, subsidies, and controls are imposed—with threats of expropriation—on products of mass consumption (gasoline, building materials, flour, bread, beverages). This narrative presents a diagnosis and an apparently easy solution. The message works; it is false but plausible. The other side, meanwhile, remains reluctant to utter its own counterargument, if it even has one to offer.

Another reason no government that is capable of standing up to Cuba or Venezuela—Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, perhaps Chile—wants to is because all are terrified of being left hanging by Washington. President Felipe Calderón in Mexico could have refrained from his unfortunate reconciliation with Chávez if he had felt the White House was behind him in pursuing a course of ideological confrontation. President Álvaro Uribe in Colombia could have taken the treasure trove of incriminating evidence found in the captured computers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas and accused Chávez of aiding and abetting terrorism in Latin America; he also refrained, harboring doubts about Washington's backbone. President Alan García in Peru could have shut down the Chavista Casas del ALBA in his country and expelled the Venezuelan activists, but with no allies to support him, he preferred to avoid a spat with Chávez.

Washington has also not been forthcoming with other kinds of support for its friends in the region who could use its backing to take on Havana and Caracas politically. Three examples stand out: the Mérida Initiative for Mexico, retaining the tariff on ethanol imports (applicable mainly to Brazil) in the 2008 version of the farm bill, and the free-trade agreement with Colombia.

In the first case, Calderón went out on a limb by breaking with Mexico's anachronistic stance of neither requesting nor receiving large-scale drug-enforcement aid from the United States. He was promised, in theory, a lot of money very quickly and with no strings—relating to human rights or anticorruption—attached at a summit meeting with Bush in Mérida, Mexico, in March 2007. This subsequently morphed into a three-year, $1.4 billion package with some fig-leaf conditionality; in turn, this pledge was transformed by the U.S. Congress into a one-year appropriation of $400 million worth of, among other things, low-grade technology (no Black Hawk helicopters) with four significant (and sensible) human rights and anticorruption conditions. Calderón found himself in a singularly uncomfortable position: either reject U.S. support and thereby undercut his commitment to fighting a no-holds-barred war on the drug cartels or accept what the traditional Mexican political elite, of which Calderón is a distinguished member, considered humiliating and unacceptable conditions. In the end, a compromise was reached, one that saved face for everyone but left no one happy. Either Bush misled Calderón or the latter's aides misled their boss, but in either case, the beleaguered Mexican president was embarrassed and forced to resort to obsolete nationalist rhetoric to regain his balance. If anything, the incident made Calderón even more wary of waging the battle of ideas against Chávez and the Castro brothers.

A similar misstep took place with Lula, who has taken remarkably bold steps in reaching out to the United States, especially for a former left-wing union leader. He has welcomed Bush to his country twice, visited him at Camp David, and signed a biofuel cooperation agreement with Washington. Lula knew Bush could not repeal the existing 54-cents-per-gallon tariff on ethanol imports into the United States, but he expected that Bush would surely attempt to exclude it when the 2001 farm bill came up for reauthorization in 2008. As a major sugar-based ethanol producer, Brazil is eager to enter the world's largest energy market, but the tariff makes Brazilian ethanol entirely uncompetitive in that highly protected market. Once again, a Latin American leader who took courageous risks in trying to fashion a functional relationship with Washington was let down by his American interlocutor, who was simply unable to deliver.


The free-trade agreement with Colombia is in the same category. Bush undeniably fought for it, and Uribe lobbied personally for it in Washington, but at best it will be approved during a lame-duck session of Congress at the end of the year, and perhaps not even then. Strictly speaking, this unfortunate outcome is not the White House's fault. Nonetheless, when the Bush administration finally got down to forcing a vote on it, Bush found he lacked the political leverage to deliver his own party, let alone members of Congress from across the aisle. This stands in stark contrast to when Clinton sought to push through NAFTA, which was approved largely with Republican votes.

One reason for the difference lies in the timing. The defeat of the trade agreement with Colombia came close to the end of the Bush administration; victory for Clinton came at the end of the first year of his first term. But another reason—the main one—has to do with priorities. Clinton made NAFTA one; Bush did not, because for most of Bush's term there has been only one foreign policy priority—Iraq. Also, Bush was ultimately unwilling to accept that or to persuade Uribe that concerns about human rights in Colombia, expressed mainly by Democrats and nongovernmental organizations, were real and sincere, even if some specific accusations were off base. Bush and Uribe just did not get it. As a result, Congress delivered an undeserved slap to the face of the otherwise highly successful Colombian president—and an unwitting pat on the back to his Venezuelan neighbor. What better proof could Chávez offer of U.S. perfidy than the betrayal of its best friend in the hemisphere? No wonder Uribe is reluctant to resort to regional or international institutions to deal with the FARC. If Washington were to support him on that as halfheartedly as it did on trade, such an attempt would be foolhardy indeed.

The free-trade issue with Colombia leads to a broader discussion of trade, the fourth issue facing the next administration. If McCain is elected in November, NAFTA, the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, and the free-trade deals with Chile and Peru would not likely be tinkered with or overhauled. But given the likelihood that the Democrats will retain their majorities in Congress, even McCain would have to modify the agreement with Colombia in order to get it passed. The pressure to include labor and environmental provisions in the other deals would then grow. And if the U.S. recession drags on and Americans continue to blame trade agreements—erroneously—for growing unemployment, falling wages, and yawning inequality, opposition to such deals will grow. Instead of waiting for the pressure to mount, the next president would do well to preempt it with an ambitious agenda on free-trade reform that would benefit everyone.

Washington can learn some lessons from the EU's practices. First, clear and explicit human rights and democracy clauses should be tacked onto the agreements, as addenda rather than as new chapters, along the same lines as similar clauses in the Mexican and Chilean free-trade agreements with the EU. Second, more specific labor, environmental, gender-rights, and indigenous-rights clauses should be included, as well as antitrust, regulatory, and judicial-reform provisions—for reasons of both principle and political expediency. Without them, these agreements will soon become, more than ever, targets of nongovernmental organizations and grass-roots and political opposition. Although there have been enormous improvements in Latin America in most of these fields in recent years, their remains a huge agenda, particularly with regard to breaking up or regulating the enormous monopolies—public, private, commercial, labor-union-based—that plague nearly every country in the region, beginning with its largest ones, Brazil and Mexico.

Third, and perhaps most important, the agreements should include bold, enlightened provisions for infrastructure and "social-cohesion" funds, since these can make the difference between mediocre muddling through and true success with free trade. Free-trade advocates should view Obama's demand that U.S. trade deals be revisited not as a mistake but rather as an opportunity to improve and deepen them; McCain's supporters should see the incorporation of all of the aforementioned inclusions not as liberal, European, grass-roots nonsense but rather as a way of narrowing the gap between the promise of the agreements themselves and the results they have actually delivered. Improving infrastructure, education, and the rule of law in Mexico and Central America and improving drug-enforcement efforts and respect for labor laws and human rights in Colombia and Peru—all are in the United States' interest, and free-trade agreements can help, rather than harm, such efforts.


The next U.S. president has a unique chance to bring up to date a relationship that is ready to be substantially transformed for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy (John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress was a good idea, but just that). Latin America today is growing at a faster pace than at any time since the 1970s; it has consolidated and deepened its democratic roots like never before and is more willing than ever to play a responsible role on the world stage. The United States needs the region dearly, as resistance to its world hegemony springs up everywhere and with greater virulence than at any time since the end of World War II.

Perhaps most important, as of next year, Washington will be led by a president—whether it is McCain or Obama—with the best attributes in a generation for dealing with Latin America's finest-ever batch of democratic, modernizing, progressive regional leaders—from Calderón to Bachelet, from Fernández to Uribe, from Torrijos to Lula. If, all together, they face up to these four principal challenges, they may leave a greater mark on the hemispheric relationship than any group of leaders in generations.

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  • JORGE G. CASTAÑEDA, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University, was Foreign Minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003. He is the author, most recently, of Ex-Mex and the co-editor, with Marco Morales, of Leftovers: Tales of the Latin American Left.
  • More By Jorge G. Castañeda