If its years of diplomatic neglect in Latin America have taught the Bush administration anything, it is that relatively young democracies can quickly revert to their old undemocratic selves. This year saw democratically elected governments threatened in Peru and Nicaragua, a president driven from power in Bolivia, governmental repression consolidated in Venezuela, and U.S. influence discredited and mocked throughout the region.
The U.S. State Department, under the so-far able stewardship of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seems to be finally taking note and, more important, taking action. This month, Robert B. Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state, traveled to Nicaragua to show support for that country's elected president and to deliver a blunt warning to those trying to destabilize his presidency: Do so and lose $175 million in U.S. aid and participation in the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld met with the defense and security ministers of seven Central American countries in Florida to discuss regional cooperation on security and intelligence matters and to strengthen U.S. ties. Next month, President Bush is scheduled to attend a Summit of the Americas in Argentina.
These welcome moves toward re-engagement are timely and, if done consistently, can signal U.S sincerity about being involved with its neighbors, not just when it suits national interests but also when it serves the interests of the region.
Mr. Zoellick's unequivocal comments while in Nicaragua were aimed at two men who were openly scheming to have President Enrique Bolanos impeached: Arnoldo Aleman, the discredited former president recently freed from a 20-year sentence for looting $100 million from the state treasury, and Daniel Ortega, the leftist Sandinista leader, who used his political sway with the courts to help free Mr. Aleman from prison. The two wield significant influence over the country's legislature and judiciary. Mr. Zoellick made sure his statements got through to both men and to their political supporters.
In the process, he sent a larger message to coup plotters in neighboring countries: Don't even think about it. That's the kind of unambiguous diplomacy that other countries can respect and, ideally, eventually believe.