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.