Commentary

U.S. Policy Has Gone South

This article was published in the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 9, 2003.

Is the Bush administration willing to support the struggle for survival of hundreds of millions of poor agricultural workers in nations unable to export their products to the rich countries of Europe and North America? We’ll soon find out. The World Trade Organization ministerial conference opens Wednesday in Cancún, Mexico.

U.S. foreign policy in Latin America has been a disaster. Few can trust the good intentions of the U.S. toward the hemisphere under a State Department immersed in hypocrisy: proclaiming free trade while imposing labor and environmental standards that extinguish the competitive advantages of small nations.

Unions and big business — in such industries as textiles and steel — seem to be running foreign policy south of the border. And the GOP’s call for “trade rather than aid” sounds hollow when trade does not include agriculture in a backward, agricultural hemisphere. Politicians consider sugar and Florida votes more important than hunger in Central America.

Despite environmentalist propaganda, the world is a better place today than ever because hard-working people are producing more food, living longer and producing and trading more goods. But the increasingly high cost of senseless legislation, regulations, subsidies and protectionism is impeding progress. For poor nations, such laws mean hunger, illness and misery.

The U.S. would not have prospered in the 19th and 20th centuries had it been subject to the trade conditions now imposed on the developing world. This is what the participants in Cancún can work toward changing.

Washington has a long history of making enemies in Latin America. Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy often meant support for corrupt military dictators. John Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress meant no aid to nations that would not raise taxes. And this generation of Latin Americans has endured the dual curse of International Monetary Fund meddling, which devalues currencies, and the war on drugs, which empowers murderous Marxist guerrillas who rake in drug cash.

The popularity of the U.S. south of the border seems to have dropped to its lowest historical level. American consulates in Latin America make it increasingly difficult for people to travel to the U.S. to study, to do business or simply to visit, as if Latinos had blown up the World Trade Center. The U.S. ambassador in Venezuela, Charles Shapiro, who ran the State Department’s Cuba desk during the Clinton administration, recently pulled the U.S. visa from Gen. Enrique Medina Gómez, the best-known military opponent of Castro’s friend, President Hugo Chávez.

The best thing the U.S. could do for Latin America would be to close its embassies and repatriate all those bureaucrats who do not believe in capitalism, free trade, limited governments and private property. The same goes for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Two decades ago, when I was editor of a Caracas daily newspaper, we knew the enemy: It was Fidel Castro, the Sandinistas, the Soviet financial support of murderous guerrillas in El Salvador, Colombia, Peru. The Soviet Union is gone, but Castro recently got a standing ovation in Buenos Aires during President Nestor Kirchner’s inauguration. Was it because Castro looks better now or because Washington looks worse?

In Cancún, the U.S. has a chance to defend the principles our nation was founded on — to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” — and steer Latin America in the 21st century toward the successful path of capitalism and individual freedom.

Carlos A. Ball is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute.