Colin Powell and Latin America


Secretary of State Colin Powell’s resignation will have little impact on Latin America other than to confirm the fact that under his watch, U.S.-Latin American relations have reached their lowest level in years, with no improvement likely in the near future.

Powell’s disservice to the region was manifested in several distinct areas. In the personnel field, he advanced and defended the nomination of two of the most ill-prepared candidates to successively head the office of Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Powell defended his first candidate, Otto Reich, as an honorable man, even though the Bush administration could not get Reich’s candidacy through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because of his controversial reputation for operating beyond the law. Reich, a raw right-wing ideologue, and his equally ill-prepared replacement, Roger Noriega, saw U.S.-Latin American relations almost exclusively through the prism of full-time Havana bashing.

If a Latin American government displayed a moderate and respectful attitude towards the Castro regime, it became the unremitting target of Reich’s and Noriega’s ire.

Rather than staunchly backing pragmatism and initiatives aimed at constructively relieving the regions’ social deficits, particularly the continued expansion of poverty and concentration of wealth, Powell’s relatively few speeches on Latin America emphasized only trade, market reform and an overly simplified view of the need for democracy. Additionally, rather than genuine concern, Powell’s interest in human rights always seemed to reflect selective indignation towards left-wing regimes, like Venezuela. When it came to the region’s reaction to the Iraq war, Powell saw to it that a number of Latin American nations were dragooned into joining the “Coalition of the Willing.” As for those that continued in their dissent, such as the Chilean and Mexican ambassadors to the UN, he pressured their respective government’s to withdraw them from their post.

The net result of Powell’s unprincipled positions ­ particularly evident in his sly and dishonorable strategy to oust Jean Bertrand Aristide from office on August 29 ­ was that an estimated 85 percent of Latin Americans were opposed to a Bush victory in the presidential election.

Powell could have used his prestige to advance mutual respect and cooperation in U.S.-Latin American relations. Instead, he sanctioned the roguish activities of Reich and Noriega, poisoning Washington’s image as a proud tower of ethical standards and turning it into that of the neighborhood bully, who unabashedly subscribes to the thesis that might means right and the ends justify the means.

LARRY BIRNS is director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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