George W. Bush’s decision to make his first overseas trip to Mexico, in mid-February, has generated a great deal of speculation about what this could possibly mean for changes in U.S. policy toward Latin America over the next four years. It is clear that Mexico is vastly more familiar and comfortable for Bush than any other foreign country. In light of the questions raised about the former Texas governor’s foreign policy experience and competence during the campaign, it is hardly surprising that he would look first to the country immediately south of the Rio Grande to show he is up to the job.

Bush could be tempted to explore some initiative that would symbolize the “special relationship” he is seeking with Mexico. This would naturally mean responding in some fashion to Mexican President Vicente Fox’s bold proposals on the two most contentious issues in the bilateral relationship: drugs and immigration. During the U.S. presidential campaign, both Bush and Gore seemed to be caught off guard by Fox’s audacity. They had presumably wanted greater democracy in Mexico, but were not prepared to deal with such an independent leader who defied all of the conventions in U.S.-Mexico relations. The triumph of the first opposition figure to defeat what Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa had once described as “the perfect dictatorship” gave the initiative to Mexico in forging a more constructive partnership with the United States.

It will not be easy to take full advantage of the opportunity afforded by the beginning of both the Mexican and U.S. administrations. Fox is likely to encounter some resistance within Mexico to the notion of deepening ties with the United States even further. In trying to serve as an interlocutor for the rest of Latin America with the United States, he will face a tough balancing act. How will Mexico retain its Latin American identity—and its credibility on an array of hemispheric questions—as it moves closer to the United States? Mexico, after all, played a key role in facilitating political settlements to the Central American conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s. Particularly in view of Fox’s rather bold and promising gestures aimed at resolving the conflict between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the Mexican leader may well want to become active in trying to find a peaceful settlement to the decades-long conflict in Colombia. Mexico’s heightened visibility on Colombia and other hemispheric questions could put some strain on its “special relationship” with the United States, whose $1.3 billion mostly military, anti-drug aid package to Colombia has provoked a backlash throughout Latin America.

Bush, in turn, will surely be tested politically, both within his party and among Democrats, to win support for special terms to deal with Mexico on the drug and immigration questions. And it is far from clear whether other key members of the U.S. and Mexican foreign policy teams—most notably, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda—will see eye-to-eye on such sensitive questions. Bush and Fox may both be ranchers, but the former general and Gulf War hero, and one of Latin America’s leading, left-leaning intellectuals, do not exactly share a common background.

Although the U.S.-Mexico relationship has in the past set the tone for U.S. relations with the rest of Latin America, it may be increasingly difficult to extrapolate from Mexico to other countries of the region. When looking beyond Mexico, Bush and his team are on less familiar terrain. As a result, there is likely to considerable continuity with Clinton’s Latin American policy, just as there was in 1993 when the administration of Bush’s father ended and Clinton’s began. It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of inertia in U.S. relations with most of Latin America and the Caribbean. If anything, the penchant for unilateral action, already strong, could well intensify. The Bush team will probably assign greater weight to matters of “national interest” and realpolitik, narrowly defined, as reflected in what has come to be known as the “Powell doctrine.” The rhetoric coming from Washington on “softer issues” of democracy and human rights is apt to decline somewhat—and the attacks on Castro’s Cuba and Aristide’s Haiti could well heat up. (Haiti was in fact the only major issue in Latin American policy in which there was a clear difference between Democratic and Republican positions during the Clinton administration.)

The profoundly troubled Andean region will continue to be a source of particular concern. That may help explain why John Maisto, former ambassador to Venezuela who recently advised the U.S. Southern Command on Colombia policy, was picked as Bush’s special assistant for Latin America at the National Security Council. The messy situation in Colombia could provoke a sharp debate within Bush’s foreign policy team, with some advisers calling for greater restraint or even gradual U.S. disengagement from Colombia, and others arguing for a marked and unabashed counterinsurgency effort. The upshot, at least for the first year and a half of the Bush presidency—until a new administration begins in Colombia—is likely to be more of the same, with an emphasis on military assistance to fight drugs accompanied by mounting anxiety about a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose approach to governing has shaken the region with greater force than any other leader since Fidel Castro, will also be watched closely by Bush’s Latin America team. To some extent reflecting the fact that Venezuela is a major oil supplier to the United States, Maisto advocated a fairly restrained, “wait-and-see posture” when he was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. But Chavez’s unpredictable and unsettling moves in the international arena, and his authoritarian impulses at home, could push the limits of U.S. tolerance during the Bush administration.

For the new U.S. administration, Brazil, unlike Mexico, is apt to seem particularly distant and unfamiliar. Bush’s Texas affinity and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice’s California connection (she was formerly provost at Stanford University) are likely to be of little help in understanding and dealing with South America’s dominant power. Yet, deep and sustained engagement between the United States and Brazil will be critical if the Bush administration is serious about extending the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and moving toward a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2005. Agreement with Brazilian leadership will also be important in advancing a common political and security agenda in the hemisphere.

Indeed, for most of the Latin American governments, the most positive signal the Bush administration could send at the outset is that it attaches high priority to securing “fast track authority.” (This would enable Bush to negotiate trade agreements without amendments from Congress.) More than anything else, Latin American countries—most struggling with increasingly acute poverty—want and expect greater access to U.S. markets and capital. It remains to be seen, however, how quickly Bush will move on the trade front, how much political capital he will be prepared to spend, and to what extent he will be willing to incorporate labor and environmental standards into any agreement. Robert Zoellick, Bush’s U.S. Trade Representative, is widely regarded as a staunch free trade advocate and will be severely tested politically as he attempts to get Democratic support for trade-related measures.

Bush might take a cue from his father who, at least on matters of trade and peace in Central America, consulted widely with the region’s governments in trying to devise more multilateral approaches to common hemispheric problems. Bush could take a significant step in this direction, create enormous goodwill—and particularly please President Fox—by showing that he is ready to jettison the unilateral, punitive, and largely counterproductive drug certification instrument and instead put a more cooperative mechanism in its place.

On the drug question—as well as Colombia policy, immigration, trade, Cuba, and other issues—Latin American leaders will no doubt pay attention to see whether Bush is merely interested in projecting U.S. power, or is actually prepared to listen and work constructively on a set of shared hemispheric problems. At the third Summit of the Americas gathering since 1994, scheduled to take place at the end of April in Quebec City, Bush will have a splendid opportunity to convey the right message with his counterparts throughout the hemisphere.

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