President Bush meets today in the Oval Office with President Ricardo Lagos of Chile. The White House is celebrating this meeting as a symbol of the Bush administration's supposed commitment to Latin America, as well as of the presumed triumph of its free trade agreements and free-market economics. But let's not let White House spin interfere with the facts. This meeting -- the first official visit by a Chilean leader under Bush -- is long overdue; it underscores the extent to which the Bush administration has relegated Latin America to the back burner.
Democratically elected governments on the continent are at serious risk. Incomplete economic reforms have failed to generate adequate growth or reduce poverty, and all too many leaders have begun to question the wisdom of market-oriented policies and representative institutions. In this context, Chile stands as vivid proof that a Latin American democracy can successfully meet the challenges of globalization in the 21st century. Yet, despite Bush's rhetoric of support for democracy and open markets as a cardinal objective of U.S. foreign policy, Chile has spent nearly the entire past year out in the cold as far as America is concerned.
Under the leadership of three successive center-left governments, Chile is the only Latin American country whose per capita income substantially exceeds the levels of the early 1980s and whose poverty rates have been dramatically reduced. Chile's success is not due simply to the application of the right economic policies. It is due to the strength and vitality of democratic institutions and procedures that reemerged despite 17 years of dictatorial rule. Chile's experience proves that the rule of law, transparency and viable political institutions, including strong parties -- the so-called third-generation reforms -- are key to the success of macroeconomic stabilization policies and structural reforms. Chile also proves that strong and decisive state action to address social injustice is an essential task of government. The United States would do well to listen closely to Chile's leaders in forming policies to help the other nations of the Americas overcome the daunting challenges they face.
With the restoration of democracy in 1990, Chile played an active and constructive role in forging a new hemispheric consensus aimed at preserving and enhancing democratic governance while addressing the severe problems of underdevelopment and lack of social justice. Working closely with the United States, Chile was a key player in the Summit of the Americas convened by President Clinton to begin a collective effort to strengthen Western Hemisphere democracies and chart an ambitious economic and social agenda, including the goal of achieving the Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005. At the global level, Chile joined in creating the Community of Democracies, an alliance of old, new and restored democracies that was constituted to promote free peoples and institutions across the world. It will host the group's next meeting in Santiago in April 2005. Finally, Chile and the United States agreed to negotiate a separate bilateral free trade agreement, one that President Clinton launched at the end of his second term despite his failure to achieve trade-negotiating authority from the Republican-controlled Congress.
To President Bush's credit, he continued the Clinton administration's negotiations with Chile and brought the trade agreement to fruition last year. Chilean officials and observers throughout the Americas assumed that the agreement would be signed by Presidents Bush and Lagos last spring in Washington to mark a milestone in the evolution of U.S.-Chile relations -- and an important step toward regional economic integration.
Instead, the White House chose to punish Chile, along with Mexico, because the two nations as members of the United Nations Security Council refused to support the Bush administration's effort to obtain U.N. approval for a rush to war against Iraq. Although Chile vigorously condemned Saddam Hussein's regime and strongly supported international efforts at containment, it was not persuaded by White House claims that Iraq represented an immediate danger to the security of the world. Nonetheless, Chile worked closely with the United Kingdom to find a compromise that would have strengthened the U.N. inspection system and given Iraq clear benchmarks to meet to avoid an attack. Rather than welcoming President Lagos' initiative, U.S. administration officials publicly denigrated Chile's efforts and shunted the signing of the Chile-U.S. trade agreement to an ignominious ministerial meeting in Miami. Singapore, whose trade negotiations were launched at the same time as Chile's, but which played along on Iraq, won an East Room presidential signing ceremony.
President Bush's subsequent failure to engage President Lagos and President Vicente Fox of Mexico on critical regional issues as retribution for their unwillingness to line up with the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq has severely damaged U.S. leadership in the hemisphere. And the lack of effective engagement with other key partners has only exacerbated Washington's neglect of the region, aggravating lingering crises in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Haiti. The dramatic decline in the moral standing of the United States among ordinary citizens of the Americas has been reinforced by the universal perception that Chile and Mexico's position at the U.N. that containment was preferable to war has been vindicated by the failure of the United States to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Today's meeting between Bush and Lagos is an important opportunity for the White House to begin to reestablish a mature foreign policy regarding Latin America. Chile has signaled its willingness to turn the page in the pursuit of common interests and values, as evidenced by its decisive response to America's request that it send troops to help stabilize Haiti. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan demonstrated his confidence in Chile by his selection last week of Juan Gabriel Valdes, Chile's former ambassador to the United Nations, to head the U.N. mission in Haiti. And Chile's role as one of the group of Friends of Venezuela will be instrumental as that country faces the difficult task of achieving national reconciliation regardless of whether President Hugo Chavez loses the recall election in August.
As a country that shares the core values of the United States and is committed to working to improve freedom and opportunity in the Americas, it is comforting to see that Chile is once again on Washington's radar screen. But it remains to be seen whether the presidential meeting signals a genuine commitment on the part of the Bush administration to put aside a foreign policy of petty retribution, an essential first step in restoring the United States' damaged credibility in the Americas.