Focus on Interests, Not Personalities

A long-standing bad habit of U.S. policy toward the Americas will be on display this weekend as the president continues his tour of Latin America.

President Bush’s six-day tour of Latin America will include stops in Uruguay and Colombia over the weekend. Both stops will inadvertently highlight a long-standing failing of U.S. policy toward the Americas—the personalization of policy.

In dealing with the Americas, perhaps more so than with any other part of the world, the United States, to our long-term detriment, tends to simplify complex issues into single individuals.

More often than not, the person upon whom we focus is vilified, and U.S. policy becomes exclusively dedicated to counteracting the individual rather than to pursuing our interests in a clear-headed manner. Over-emphasizing single individuals is not, however, unique to our dealings with our perceived enemies in the region—we tend to do it with our friends as well. The president’s weekend stops will underscore the perils and pitfalls that arise from both.

The classic example of a vilified leader with whom U.S. policy has become obsessed is, of course, Cuba’s Fidel Castro. The modern example is Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

The Bush administration sees Chávez as a threat that must be contained, and the president is making this evident in almost every aspect of his trip. The president’s invocations of social justice as well as his staking a claim to the legacy of Simoón Bolivar in laying out his goals for the trip were obvious signs of Chávez ’s shadow. And, as if to remove all doubt, President Bush took a page straight out of the Castro-Chávez playbook by announcing that he would be sending U.S. doctors to the region to provide medical services to the poor.

President Bush’s time in Uruguay is another clear sign of the degree of his obsession with Chávez and the damage it has already inflicted on the pursuit of U.S. interests in the region. His visit with Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez is meant to signal that the United States can work with the democratic left in Latin America, even if it won’t work with Chávez.

Yet it reveals how much the Bush administration’s focus on Chávez has complicated U.S. relations with the rest of the hemisphere. There should never have been any question of the willingness or ability to work with governments that do not share the Bush administration’s narrow ideology. Six years of ranting about the dangers of Chávez’s leftist ideology, however, created real and debilitating questions that have unnecessarily complicated the pursuit of U.S. interests in the Americas.

When President Bush ventures from Uruguay to Colombia on Sunday, he will temporarily set aside his Chávez obsession, but he will not stray from the practice of placing too much emphasis on a single individual. In the case of Colombia, that individual is President Alvaro Uribe, President Bush’s closest ally in the region.

Although the massive level of U.S. support for Colombia under the rubric of Plan Colombia predates President Uribe, he has come to personify U.S. interests in Colombia, rendering support for Colombia and support for Uribe virtually indistinguishable.

Yet the United States’ support for Colombia, focused on President Uribe, is now becoming more complicated as Uribe finds himself in the midst of a growing political scandal arising from deep connections between Colombia’s governing elites and the country’s narco-terrorist paramilitary organizations. Eight members of the Colombian Congress—all Uribe supporters—as well as Uribe’s former confidant and former head of the secret police have been arrested in the still-unfolding scandal. Not surprisingly, this has led to unfortunate questions about whether the United States should continue its support of Colombia.

These revelations and the ones that are almost certain to come should not prompt us to turn our backs on Colombia. The scandal does not change the United States’ interest in fighting drugs and promoting stability in Colombia, nor does it alter the need to pursue these ends intelligently. It should, however, serve as a reminder that we cannot rest our interests on one person; the successful pursuit of U.S. policy in Colombia requires fundamental institutional advancements that transcend any individual.

President Bush would be well served to remember as he travels through Uruguay and Colombia this weekend that U.S. policy in the region needs to move beyond easy labels, villains and men in proverbial white hats. American policy should focus instead on the kinds of bold initiatives discussed in the Center for American Progress report “Lost in the Americas: President Bush’s Strategy Free Trip to the Americas,” which could revitalize relations with our too long neglected neighbors.

For more information on the President’s trip in the Americas, please see Lost in the Americas: President Bush’s Strategy-Free Trip to the Americas.

For more on a more effective means of dealing with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, please see the CAP report “U.S.-Venezuela Policy: A Reality-Based Approach.”

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Dan Restrepo

Senior Fellow