After almost a decade of obsession with revolutionary upheavals in Central America, the United States has finally discovered the importance of South America.

President Reagan--whose Latin American policy focused almost exclusively on Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama--only visited South America once, in 1982 to try to quell Latin anger in the aftermath of the Falkland/Malvinas fracas because of U.S. support for Britain.

President Bush is about to make his second trip to the region in less than 10 months (he attended the drug summit in Colombia last February) and will visit key countries that make up more than 50 percent of Latin America's total population. This renewed attention to South America will serve to reaffirm the president's hands-on approach to foreign policy, his penchant for personalized diplomacy and his evolving strategy of lining up international support against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

No big breakthroughs are expected, but the growing importance of Latin America to the United States will give President Bush an opportunity to promote his "Enterprise for the Americas Initiative," congratulate Latin leaders for having the fortitude to implement new economic reform initiatives and offer praise for their democratization efforts. He will no doubt use his trip to express U.S. opposition to any policy of "getting soft" on Fidel Castro.

However, because of President Reagan's go-it-alone policies toward the region and obsession with revolutionary Nicaragua, most Latim American leaders are less likely to be impressed with U.S. initiatives and subservient to Bush's "global vision," no matter what the justification. What is President Bush likely to find this week as he visits the elected leaders of Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela?


The most important stop on the trip is Brazil, where its young conservative president, Fernando Collor de Mello, is facing a series of issues that are likely to strain U.S.-Brazil relations.

President Bush is in for a surprise if the thinks President Collor de Mello's warm praise for his hemispheric trade initiative--"broad, bold and innovative"--is where talks will begin and end.

Brazil is the largest manufacturer and seller of arms in the Third World and a major supplier to Iraq, until its agreement to comply with sanctions imposed by the United Nations. According to Brazilian arms experts, Brazilian-made weapons were used by Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait. Brazil and Iraq have been cooperating closely on the development of short- and intermediate-range missiles as well as nuclear technology. The Rio de Janeiro daily Jornal do Brasil has reported that the former military government supplied a small amount of enriched uranium to Iraq. Already reeling from the impact of having its Iraqi oil cut off, Brazil stands to suffer more inflation and economic setbacks.

President Collor de Mello is now under attack from organized labor and his business allies over key elements of his reform package: import liberalization, fiscal discipline and privatization. President Bush will have to walk a delicate path if he is to avoid the domestic minefields of discontent throughout Brazil.


The decision to visit President Luis Lacalle is more out of fear o being criticized for a diplomatic snub than the need to discuss important bilateral issues.

Despite its size -- Uruguay is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in South America -- President Bush needs to cultivate all the support he can get for his "Enterprise for the Americas" initiative, emphasizing free trade, debt relief and privatization.

Uruguay was one of nine South American countries (collectively known as the Rio Group) to sign the Declaration of Caracas in October of 1990 when they agreed to bolster economic relations with the European Economic Community, strengthen the Organization of American States, and extend discussions with the United States as part of the new Bush initiative. All three of these goals present sensitive diplomatic issues.

Still, Uruguay should provide President Bush with the opportunity to praise Uruguayan democracy (after years of military rule in the 1970s and early 1980s) and economic reform without having to face many of the contentious issues waiting for him on his other stops. An early-morning jog around Punta del Este would make a nice photo-opportunity for President Bush and his entourage.


The political tempo will be more upbeat, and contentious whe Mr. Bush greets Carlos Menem, Argentina's Peronist president.

President Menem confounded his populist backers by announcing a sweeping set of economic reforms shortly after he took office in July 1989. However, the score card on Argentine economic reform has been abysmal, despite cuts in subsidies, increases in public utility prices, a drive to collect income taxes, liberalization of imports and privatization.

Mr. Menem's medicine -- he called his reforms "surgery without anesthesia" -- brought Argentina hyperinflation, food riots and severe recession. More than 450 Argentine firms have gone bankrupt since the beginning of the year. Strikes are a common occurrence, and some of this anger may be directed at Bush's trade policies and his lukewarm concerns over Argentina's staggering foreign debt.

President Menem's other nemesis -- the Argentine military -- has been quieted by his promise to pardon officers imprisoned for committing terrorist acts and human rights violations during the "dirty war" between 1976 and 1983. Mr. Menem's pardon has not gone over well with human rights groups in Argentina and the United States.

In his efforts to make Argentina a global player, President Menem has called for the re-entry of Cuba into the Organization of American States (OAS) and sent more than 400 men of the Argentine navy to assist the multilateral efforts to reverse Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. President Menem's policy of sending troops to the Persian Gulf is also another way of bolstering his support among the Argentine military while pleasing the visiting U.S. president.

President Bush would be wise to enjoy the Argentine cuisine (beef and wine) and dance the tango while he can; if war breaks out in the Middle East, the friendships he is trying to foster many have a short life span in petroleum-poor Latin countries such as Argentina.


It has been almost three decades since a U.S. president ha visited Chile,and many Chileans still resent the years of U.S. support for a military autocrat. President Bush will greet freely elected Patricio Aylwin, a centrist Christian Democrat, who replaced Gen. Augusto Pinochet last year. President Bush is likely to get a lot of political mileage out of the Chile stop if Mr.

Aylwin's domestic political opponents do not turn the occasion into a forum for attacking U.S. Latin American policy.

President Aylwin is a master of political compromise and has inherited an economy that is in much better shape than those of Brazil and Argentina. Because of this, it will be much easier for President Bush to praise the free market reforms and economic successes in Chile.

While there is economic success, President Aylwin is struggling to extricate himself from another issue. On the one hand, there are persistent demands for punishment of past military human rights violations; on the other hand, there is strong opposition by the ever-powerful military to such efforts.

Chile is experiencing the political pains of redemocratization, and President Bush will get an eyeful of these problems on his visit.


Venezuela is Latin America's wealthiest country, a principa member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and a major supplier of oil to the United States. President Bush will meet Carlos Andres Perez, whose failed economic reforms have been rescued by recent events in the Middle East. Petroleum sales are expected to bring in twice as much money as in 1989, thanks in part to the rise in oil prices precipitated by the Persian Gulf crisis.

As a former populist who enjoyed the oil bonanza while he was president of Venezuela from 1973 to 1978, Mr. Perez found it extremely difficult to push his economic reform package through the Venezuelan Congress early last year. Nevertheless, public sector prices were hiked, plans to reform taxes were drawn up, trade was liberalized, the bolivar was allowed to depreciate sharply, privatization was put on the agenda and foreign investment was welcomed. The program was first met with bloody riots in Caracas, but with petroleum revenues now soaring, President Perez should find mending the economic system much easier.

He is fortunate in having a democratic system that has been in effect for over 30 years, a luxury not enjoyed by the other civilian leaders that President Bush will visit. In fact, Venezuela is the only country on Bush's itinerary where there is virtually no tension between civilian and military authorities.

President Bush would be wise to keep his "Cuba card" in his pocket during his visit to Venezuela, as the Venezuelans may be anxious to sell Cuba oil now that the large Soviet subsidies are on the wane.

Latin America, despite its size (its current population is 410 million) and economic importance to the United States, is generally considered a low priority on the world agenda. Moreover, U.S. presidents are not likely to be helped much at home by what they do (or don't do) in Latin America.

In his "Enterprise for the Americas" speech to members of the U.S. business community in Washington last June, President Bush declared that "the United States is serious about forging a new partnership with our Latin American and Caribbean neighbors." However, it makes no sense to try to manufacture a "new partnership" with only the larger and more wealthy countries in the region, no matter how successful (or unsuccessful) their economic and political reform efforts, at the expense of the war-torn countries that fell victim to misguided U.S. policies in Central America in the 1980s. When will President Bush bring his "new partnership" to Central America?

David W. Dent, director of international studies at Towson State University, is the author of the recently published "Handbook of Political Science Research on Latin America

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