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America’s Hemisphere Of Interest

It seems that issues central to the American foreign policy agenda today are unequivocally and insistently pursued everywhere — except in Latin America.

As Secretary of State Colin Powell stated at a briefing to Congress last February, America’s “top” priorities of a “more serious nature” — the consolidation of democratic regimes, the guaranteeing of open borders, the control of immigration and the pre-emptive struggle against terrorism — lie elsewhere. Latin America is once again being treated as an afterthought rather than as a very real strategic imperative for American foreign policy.

A close look reveals that the Western Hemisphere is in trouble. Haiti is once again in the throes of an ongoing civil war, and the Andean region continues to be immersed in political uncertainty. Washington’s response has been to sharply cut the foreign aid budget for the upcoming fiscal year, exclusively for Latin America. The small level of attention we place on our own hemisphere is completely disproportionate to the immense opportunities and challenges it presents to our country.

A report by the United Nations Development Program released in April in Lima, Peru revealed that a majority of Latin Americans — more than 50% of those polled in 18 countries — said they would support the replacement of a democratic government with an authoritarian one. Fifty-six percent said they felt that economic development was more important than maintaining democracy.

Across Latin America, the promise of economic growth of the 1990s has been eroded by an increase in the levels of social inequality and ineffective legal systems and social services. According to the UNDP survey, a majority of citizens of countries that during the past 25 years have held regular elections and enjoyed a free press and basic civil liberties, surprisingly enough, yearn for a strong political figure who can restore “order” and take care of their immediate needs.

This troublesome generalized attitude, coupled with a growing anti-American sentiment fueled by the ongoing war in Iraq, apparently has brought about a rejection of what is perceived as American “impositions.” In the eyes of at least half of Latin Americans, democracy and liberal economic policies — with their emphasis on open borders and privatization — have failed them miserably. This, despite the fact that most incumbent political leaders and other public opinion sectors understand that it is not in their country’s best interest to turn back the clock and are still betting on improvements at the macro level trickling down to vast segments of their population.

Frustration with the status quo in Latin America has created a fertile feeding ground for terrorism. Since the attacks in Buenos Aires against the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994, and especially since the tragic events of September 11, we have been made increasingly aware of the alleged expansion and heightened intensity of radical groups with links to the Middle East and Europe in Latin America. Whether it be money laundering operations resulting in funds channeled to Lebanon; fund-raising activities of Palestinian “charities”; the unexplained increase in the influx of nationals from countries who support terrorist groups; or the logistical and financial support that has been channeled to local leaders involved in destabilizing activities, these developments warrant proper assessment of the scope of the implied threats and the investment of resources aimed at neutralizing potential dangers for the United States and for all the Americas.

Unfortunately, with the attention of the White House, Congress and policy-makers in general centered largely on the Middle East, the Western Hemisphere has become an ideal terrain for the barely noticed activity of cells closely linked to radical groups and countries at the top of the State Department’s list of international terrorists.

As income inequalities are widening and personal and collective security is decreasing, more and more Latin Americans — 40% of whom live under the poverty line — look north for a chance to transform their lives. No matter the cost, survival is at stake.

As a top Mexican government official stated recently, the dilemma for the American government, and for American society at large, has ceased to be when and how to deal with the immigration issue. The real question now is where — namely, if the United States is ready to deal with immigration at its source. In other words, the United States can deal with the problem in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America by supporting job creation and increased opportunities for personal growth, or it can choose to deal with it on our side of the border while addressing concomitant political, social and economic ramifications.

One way or another, though, the issue will have to be addressed. By adopting a policy of full engagement in the region with a vision that does not limit itself to solving immediate problems, the United States can help create the right conditions for strong democracies, for sustained economic growth, and for safe and secure nations — and ultimately for a more prosperous, peaceful and stable hemisphere.

Dina Siegel Vann is director for Latino and Latin American affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

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