Less than a month after his inauguration in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush declared the dawn of a new era in relations with Latin America. Before travelling to Mexico on his first state visit, he vowed to "build a Western Hemisphere of freedom and prosperity ..... bound together by shared ideals and free trade."
Whatever it was worth at the time, that vision is now a faded memory. When trade ministers gather in Miami tomorrow to discuss what's left of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, there will be bitterness inside the meeting rooms as well as out in the street among the protesters. There's a strong feeling in Latin America that the region has been cast adrift as Mr. Bush pursues "evil-doers" abroad and votes at home.
As things stand, the outcome of Miami is likely to be a washed-out copy of the deal originally envisaged. It was Mr. Bush's father who, as president in 1990, proposed a free-trade zone stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Trade liberalization was a natural outgrowth of the market-oriented policies adopted during the 1980s by many Latin American nations, the price set by Washington and its allies at the International Monetary Fund for relief from crushing levels of debt.
The free-trade agenda languished under Bill Clinton, who failed to secure authority from Congress to negotiate comprehensive trade accords. But who better to pick up the ball than Bush the Younger? He was the former governor of a border state with a sizable Latino population, and is passably conversant with the Spanish language. A friendly Congress gave him the negotiating power Mr. Clinton lacked.
But the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, pushed Latin America, and just about everything else, off the U.S. policy agenda. There was no more talk of a deal allowing millions more Mexicans to work legally in the United States. As Argentina slid toward economic chaos, largely of its own making, it was told to stew in its own juices by Mr. Bush's first treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill.
As the U.S. economy slumped, the pitfalls of a strategy that depended for success on foreign capital and export-led growth became all too apparent to Latin Americans. Market-oriented policies failed to lessen the gap between rich and poor, and popular discontent forced the reversal of several controversial development projects.
Leftists and centre-leftists began winning presidential elections - people such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. They openly questioned the free-trade agenda. Brazil began promoting Mercosur, the South American economic alliance, as an alternative to the sputtering FTAA process.
Few, if any, of the Latin leaders actually repudiated the concept of free trade. Why should they? A fair deal negotiated between equals ought to benefit everyone - notably Latin Americans in industries that have been seeking fairer access to the U.S. market for decades.
But as Canadians know so well, some of the most influential interests in the U.S. aren't free-traders at all. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in politically significant states would be threatened if the U.S. market were thrown open to Latin American steel, textiles, sugar and orange juice. Despite the FTAA rhetoric, Mr. Bush and his Congress have approved fat subsidies for U.S. agriculture and prohibitive tariffs to protect domestic steel makers.
In that climate, the appetite for a comprehensive FTAA, obliging all players to respect the same norms, dropped precipitously. The deal reportedly under consideration in Miami would produce a smorgasbord of limited scope that allows countries to decide which of its provisions they will adhere to. That would allow Mr. Bush to avoid the appearance of failure, but nothing more.
As prospects for a comprehensive FTAA cloud over, Washington is intensifying efforts to sign two-way deals with individual countries. An agreement with Chile awaits ratification. Negotiations are under way with a five-nation Central American bloc. Yesterday, evidently as a warning in advance of the FTAA talks, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced he would seek individual deals with Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. These are divide-and-rule tactics. Precedents will be established with weak nations that will be hard for the stronger ones to resist.
The irony in the tale is that the human ties between the United States and Latin America grow stronger every day. More than 37 million U.S. residents, 13 per cent of the population, now claim Latino heritage. The United States is increasingly a Latin country, yet it lacks a coherent Latin American strategy. That is the real tragedy of the FTAA debacle.