San Diego Union-Tribune

Congress is wrong on Latin America

By Gene E. Bigler, Ph. D.
June 13, 2008

In 2006, the American people elected Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress for the first time in over a decade largely because of Bush administration foreign policy blunders, especially the war in Iraq. Now Congress wants to eviscerate an initiative for helping Mexico and Central America combat drug trafficking, while failing to act on pending free trade agreements that would boost the American economy.

It seems Congress wants to show it can be just as foolish as the administration in making foreign policy.

President Bush proposed the $1.1 billion Merida Initiative last year to provide vital support for Mexico and Central America in their heroic struggle against drug trafficking. Since President Felipe Calderón took office at the end of 2006, the armed forces and national law enforcement officials of Mexico have clamped down on traffickers, acted to replace corrupt local officials and extradited dozens of accused criminals to the United States.

Mexico has made remarkable progress, but the criminals have counterattacked viciously. Violence has escalated enormously in parts of Mexico as criminals directly target honest officials at the same time they attack rival gangs to control the territory that remains to them. Not surprisingly, the violence increasingly spills across the border, and some Mexican officials have sought asylum in the U.S. because of death threats at home.

The rapidly growing fence on the border now appears to be slowing down the flow of grape pickers and waiters but has little impact on criminal activity. U.S. drug consumers still provide the money that fuels the Mexican gangs, and then American entrepreneurs sell the guns, grenades and increasingly powerful weapons that are smuggled back to the traffickers. Last year, over 90 percent of all the firearms and heavy weapons confiscated in Mexico came from the United States.

As the number of Mexican police and other officials being assassinated mounted, the Bush administration worked out the details of the Merida Plan to provide financial and technical assistance, helicopters and equipment that Mexico wanted for the fight. President Calderón had actually asked the United States to concentrate first on reducing drug consumption and the flow of arms across the border, but Mexico was still happy to welcome the support offered because it was mutually agreed upon as much as it was needed.

After months of delay in dealing with the proposal, Congress decided recently to cut the package down to only $550 million and add lots of conditions that are hard for Mexico to accept. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff declared last week that congressional meddling might undermine the growing bilateral cooperation with Mexico.

As I learned during four years at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, the key reason for the great success of the Italian-American campaign against the mafia was the mutual respect between U.S. and Italian law enforcement and government officials. Congress now risks reversing such progress with Mexico.

And Congress has taken the same unilateral approach to the approval of three important free trade agreements that were negotiated over a year ago with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Rather than vote on the agreements that were actually negotiated and then revised with ample congressional contributions, the Democratic majority has decided to defer action on them.

The presidential debate raised important questions about the negative impact of NAFTA and other trade pacts on American workers, and Congress appears intent on pushing the Bush administration into accepting a trade adjustment program as the price of a vote on these trade deals. This is a high price at a time when their approval would provide an immediate boost to our economy by raising exports.

The cost to our foreign policy with three important allies could be even greater. Colombia is America's other crucial partner in fighting drug trafficking, and its economy badly needs the boost that this trade agreement would provide. Panama is expanding its canal, which contributes more than ever to America's global competitiveness. And South Korea has been one of our closest allies in war and peace and the global economy for over 60 years.

At a time when the Bush administration is finally getting some foreign policy right, Congress needs to support rather than hinder the progress.

 Bigler is an international relations professor specializing in Latin America at University of the Pacific in Stockton. He is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer.