Bush Has a Record in Latin America. So What Is It?

There was a gaping hole in Tuesday's coverage of the president's new effort to engage Latin America: what has his administration done there up to this point?

On Tuesday, papers across the country published accounts of President Bush’s new effort to engage Latin America, which as a candidate in 2000 he promised would be a “fundamental commitment of my presidency.” But there was a gaping hole in the coverage, as reporters largely failed to answer a basic question: what has the Bush administration done in Latin America up to this point? (A point, it should be noted, when the administration desperately needs to talk about anything other than Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.)

USA Today reported the several moderate new initiatives Bush announced Monday, including a Navy medical ship he will send “to 12 Latin American and Caribbean nations to treat an estimated 85,000 patients and perform up to 1,500 surgeries,” “a $75 million program to allow Latin American youths to study English in the USA and a [$385 million] effort to provide mortgages to working families.” But beyond noting a Zogby poll that showed “Latin Americans believe that the Bush administration has ignored the region” since Sept. 11, there was little in the way of recent historical context for the president’s south of the border swing, which begins Thursday. The paper closed with some easily swallowed assertions from national security adviser Stephen Hadley, who “said the trip wasn’t an anti-Chavez trip. Instead, the region has long been one of the president’s top priorities. Much of Bush’s work in Latin America, he said, was overshadowed by the continuing war on terrorism.” Okay, but what work?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution didn’t tell us. Its article had even more of a “he said/administration said” bent, saying that “Critics have assailed the Bush administration for ignoring Latin America since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” then closing with Hadley, who “insisted the region has remained a Bush priority.”

A McClatchy Newspapers dispatch touched even less on Bush’s record, and the Los Angeles Times, while giving the most authoritative account of Hugo Chavez’s “growing regional sway,” also skimped on the specifics of Bush’s record.

Almost by default, then, it was the New York Times that provided the most helpful context, writing in the second graph of its lead story Tuesday that U.S. policy toward Latin America since 1990 “has focused on free-trade agreements and related economic measures, with a secondary emphasis on drug interdiction.” That was followed by this strong quote from a Brazilian diplomat: ”When something isn’t working after 15 years, that’s a sign there are insurmountable obstacles and it’s time to change direction.” Further on, the Times noted that Uruguay had emerged, “with American help, from a fiscal crisis in 2002,” that Bush has had “an almost exclusive focus on free trade,” including agreements with Colombia, Peru and Panama, and that, as Hadley said Monday, the U.S. “has nearly doubled aid to the region since President Bush took office to $1.6 billion annually.”

But despite its strong piece, even the Times didn’t quite connect this record to the question of why the U.S.’s reputation in Latin America is in the gutter. Sure, Bush’s multifaceted blunder in Iraq has soured people around the world on the U.S., but there are some very specific plaints about policy toward Latin America. Consider this November quote in the Washington Post from a leader of the Inter-American Dialogue: “If you really look at the U.S. agenda in Latin America, trade is the only positive.” Or this recent op-ed by a Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who declared that Washington’s “myopic and increasingly dissonant message of more trade and war on drugs and terrorists offers no answers to the bread-and-butter issues Latin America’s new leaders face.”

Or this, from the NYT’s own editorial today: “In recent years, Washington has looked at Latin America with tunnel vision. It has selectively concerned itself with issues that have important political constituencies in the United States, like drug trafficking, immigration, military cooperation and trade and investment liberalization. And it has shortchanged many of the issues that matter most to Latin Americans, like development, poverty reduction, access to credit, education and health care.”

Obviously, news reporters can’t write that way. But the facts about what the Bush administration has done in Latin America, and not just the details of its fresh initiatives, belong in the stories about its new promises.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.