WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
2 Mar 2007 | News

President Bush’s trip to Latin America

Washington DC, March 2, 2007—While the Washington Office on Latin America applauds President Bush’s upcoming trip to Latin America to discuss social justice and economic opportunity in the region as a positive step, it urges President Bush to follow the visit with actions that will make real the “commitment of the United States to the Western Hemisphere.”

“We want to see real action following this positive rhetoric,” said Geoff Thale, WOLA’s Program Director.  “There’s a pressing need for the U.S. to engage with Latin America on issues of poverty and income inequality, violence and citizen security, and the strengthening of democratic institutions beyond this trip,” Thale continued.

According to WOLA, the Administration has neglected Latin America for most of the President’s tenure.  Its main Latin America initiatives have focused on traditional U.S. concerns (trade, drugs, and migration) with little to show for its efforts, while it has advanced a polarizing and unduly alarmist view of the challenges that Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and other U.S. critics pose.  But it has not devoted major attention to the region, or responded in a serious way to the continuing problems of poverty and inequality that underlie the political developments going on in Latin America.

Poverty and inequality in Latin America are serious and continuing problems that the free trade agreements and market liberalization policies of recent years have done little to address.  Limited economic growth in Latin America has not translated into economic well-being for people living in the region.  “The political developments in the region suggest that Latin Americans are looking for policies that will address their need for decent jobs that pay a living wage and give them security. During his trip, President Bush should acknowledge the problems of poverty and inequality, and recognize that more needs to be done, particularly in the areas of rural development and rural poverty alleviation,” said Vicki Gass, Rights and Development Senior Associate at WOLA. “Unfortunately, the cuts in U.S. foreign development assistance to Latin America in the President’s recent budget request will make this more difficult,” she concludes.

Bush Administration aid to Latin America.  As President Bush tours Latin America, he’s likely to claim that his administration has doubled foreign assistance to the region.  There is an increase, but it is wise to examine that claim carefully.  According to Latin America Working Group Education Fund director Lisa Haugaard, “The Bush Administration has not done enough to provide the kinds of aid to Latin America that really wins friends and influences people–disaster relief, microcredit, support for education and health, rural development, aid for refugees and displaced people. As Mr. Bush looks around in bemusement as to why he isn’t fully appreciated in Latin America, he might start looking at his own aid budget.”

In addition, violence and citizen insecurity are major problems in every country the President will visit.  Therefore, strengthening civilian public security institutions and improving judicial systems, while respecting human rights, are critical challenges.

In Colombia, the U.S. has invested billions of dollars in aid since 2000, and it is requesting over $600 million for the coming year.  The goal of U.S. aid was to curb drug production (80% of the aid) and improve the humanitarian and human rights situation (20% of the aid). Yet the aid package in its current form is not meeting these intended goals: despite the aerial herbicide spraying of over 2 million acres of illegal and legal crops in Colombia, the availability of cocaine on U.S. streets remains virtually unchanged; serious human rights violations continue to occur and the majority of cases remain in impunity; and there are over 3 million internally displaced persons in Colombia due to the humanitarian and human rights crisis. “The “para-politics” scandal that has linked a long list of government officials to right-wing paramilitaries, and the emergence of new or re-armed groups, after a controversial demobilization program, indicate that the U.S. must no longer provide unconditional support to Colombia,” argues Gimena Sanchez, Colombia Senior Associate at WOLA. “President Bush and other policy makers must demand accountability, and balance the aid package in favor of promoting peace and human rights,” she concludes.

Mexico faces unprecedented levels of violence with over 2,000 drug-related killings in 2006. Since assuming office in December, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has extradited to the U.S. some major drug traffickers and deployed over 25,000 soldiers and police to eight Mexican states considered hotspots for organized crime. “On their own, these actions will not be effective in tackling drug-related violence in Mexico. There is a pressing need for police and judicial reforms to address issues such as corruption and impunity, which facilitate drug trafficking in the country,” argues Maureen Meyer, Mexico Associate at WOLA.  “President Bush should support Mexico in its efforts to implement these reforms, while also recognizing that the United States itself shares responsibility for the drug-related violence afflicting Mexico because of the continuing strong demand for illicit drugs in our country.”

In Guatemala, the continued existence of illegal armed groups with strong ties to organized criminal networks has become one of the biggest threats to the rule of law.  High-level government officials have warned about the growing infiltration of organized criminal networks into the State apparatus.  For several years, concerns have been raised about the involvement of these illicit networks in politically motivated attacks against judges, witnesses, political leaders and activists.  In December 2006, the Guatemalan government and the United Nations signed an agreement to establish an International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  If approved by the Guatemalan Congress, the CICIG will investigate the existence and structure of these networks and assist local authorities in their subsequent criminal prosecution.  “President Bush should express support for the CICIG as a mechanism for collaborating with Guatemala in its efforts to combat corruption and organized crime, and strengthen the rule of law,” said Adriana Beltrán, WOLA’s Associate for Organized Crime. The recent assassination of three Salvadoran politicians, allegedly carried out by senior officials of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police, and the subsequent murder of those police officials while in custody, underscores the pressing need for the international community to assist the Guatemalan government in implementing effective institutional vetting processes and police and justice reforms.

“The problems of poverty and inequality, and of crime and citizen insecurity, cannot be resolved in the two remaining years of the Bush administration,” said Geoff Thale. “But it is not too late for the U.S. government to move beyond rhetoric and begin to engage our neighbors in the Americas on a common agenda of prosperity, citizen security, and human rights,” he concludes.