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Re-earning Latin America's respect

The Baltimore Sun

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- President Bush's recent journey to Latin America has been played in the media as an epic struggle of the unpopular American president vs. Hugo Chavez, a charismatic Venezuelan caudillo. The media sometimes forget that Latin America is hardly a homogeneous entity. Mr. Chavez's goal - to become a 21st-century pan-Latin American leader - has faced severe scrutiny from fellow Latin Americans who hold a healthy and historic distrust of leaders claiming to speak for all of them.

Latin Americans are smarter than we in the United States often give them credit for, and most are hardly enamored of President Chavez, who is generally seen as clownish, arbitrary and potentially destabilizing. Latin Americans are even less motivated by President Bush, whose plodding remark in Sao Paulo on March 9 that the U.S. "is generous and compassionate" fell flat, particularly to the poor and marginalized on the continent.

The United States has all but forgotten about Latin America during the Bush administration, which has insisted on democracy, free trade and security - but not social justice. The hypocrisy of U.S. policy toward the region is legendary: Last fall, for example, Iran-contra protagonist Oliver North and others went to Managua and threatened Nicaraguans not to elect revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega to the presidency. The offensive backfired, and Mr. Ortega won the presidency in fair elections. Uruguayans and others complain about U.S. farm subsidies as being contrary to the basic tenets of free and fair trade.

The U.S. government's social spending "generosity" toward Latin America for the year is estimated at $1.6 billion. This figure represents less than a week's worth of spending on the Iraq war. Enter Mr. Chavez: The oil-rich Venezuelan leader has been distributing billions of dollars to social projects in Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and elsewhere, and he has offered low-cost oil to Joseph P. Kennedy II's Citizens Energy Corp. of Boston, a not-for-profit company that provides home heating oil to the poor in New England.

Although the road to win back Latin Americans will be difficult, the United States can regain its stature in the region as a caring, compassionate nation that values the contributions of our neighbors to the south. Five changes to U.S. policy could have immediate, positive results:

Pass a comprehensive immigration policy that would help quell tensions in Mexico and Central America. Development of a carefully monitored guest worker program, together with a program whereby undocumented workers living in the U.S. would be offered a pathway to citizenship, would help restore the image of the U.S. as a caring, open and socially tolerant society.

Develop a Kennedy-style "Alliance for Progress" for the 21st century. When the U.S. was upstaged in 1959 by Fidel Castro, who delivered health care, education and free housing to Cubans, the U.S. developed an ambitious program designed to counteract Mr. Castro's Marxist agenda. Now, America should invest wisely in social projects as a way to win over the 43 percent of the population who have not benefited from our emphasis on market forces.

Send out our most valuable resource: our young people. My students at Rhodes College in Memphis would love to participate in a federally funded program that allowed them to work with the underprivileged in Latin America for a year after graduation. This program could offer tax incentives for companies that hire recently returned volunteers; our young people could assist with literacy, build schools, help with health care and work in rural areas on agricultural projects.

Create panels of experts to travel to Latin America. These panels would return with clear advice to governmental, business and social organizations in the United States. They would carefully assess the needs and concerns of Latin Americans. Social scientists and academics have years of experience living in and writing about Latin America. Put them, and other nonpartisan, nonpolitical people, to work looking for common ground.

Increase funding for Fulbright and other cultural/educational missions to Latin America. Every year, thousands of young people are unable to participate in Fulbright programs because of budgetary constraints.

The United States can be a generous and compassionate nation, but it has not demonstrated these virtues toward Latin America in recent years. With creative leadership, the will to do much more in the region, admission of past mistakes and a significant increase in funding, our nation can return to a position of prestige and respect in the region.

Michael LaRosa is associate professor of history at Rhodes College. His e-mail is larosa@rhodes.edu.

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