In her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that the Western Hemisphere is “extremely critical” to the United States.

“With our close neighbors in Latin America we are working to realize the vision of a fully democratic hemisphere bound by common values and free trade,” she said.

While it’s heartening to see that Latin America has made it onto the Bush administration’s foreign policy radar screen, there’s little reason to expect policy toward the region to change or deepen in the next four years. More likely, with all eyes on the Middle East, the region will be largely ignored while remaining an arena for ad hoc crisis intervention.

This is a mistake. Changes in Latin America demand a more coherent U.S. policy.

Some Latin American countries are forging new leadership on issues of trade and finance. For example, Brazil has campaigned to unite developing countries around the world in trade reform and a call to slash U.S. farm subsidies.

And Argentina’s insistence on stabilizing its economy before paying off bondholders and other creditors has made the country an unsung hero for many other nations facing stifling foreign debts.

Recent elections in Latin America reflect this widespread spirit of independence. Uruguay elected a president from the leftist Broad Front, the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil made significant gains, and Hugo Chávez consolidated power in Venezuela. Massive protests against trade agreements and privatizations have also marked new directions.

This isn’t exactly the kind of leadership the Bush administration wanted to see coming from its Southern flank. But U.S. policymakers must meet this serious challenge with diplomacy and respect for democracy by adopting more flexible positions.

Sadly, Bush’s new team for his secondterm leaves little reason to foresee the emergence of a more coherent policy for Latin America. Rice has a marked lack of experience in Western Hemisphere affairs. Before the Senate foreign relations committee, she merely reiterated positions put forth during the first administration: clamp down on Cuba and Venezuela, build stronger trade and security relations with Mexico, keep a wary eye on the Andean region, and stick with the military alliance with Colombia.

Placing Elliott Abrams, who wasindicted in the Iran-Contra scandal, and ex-Honduras ambassador during the Contra war of the 1980s, John Negroponte, in high-level cabinet posts just rubs salt in old wounds.

In his second inaugural address, Bush espoused lofty principles of freedom and democracy. Latin America needs less rhetoric and more solutions. Current policy shows little commitment to grappling with the region’s pressing problems. While terrorism remains at the top of U.S. security concerns, the term rarely even figures on lists of priorities for the other nations of the hemisphere.

Latin American governments face daunting challenges of poverty, economic inequality, urban violence, and massive displacement. All these require domestic policies that have little or nothing to do with the U.S.’s “War on Terrorism” or free trade agenda.U.S. policy must be sensitive to the real needs faced by its neighbors to the South.

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