Nov. 22, 2006, 6:54AM
U.S. poised to shift Latin America policies
Congressional Democrats have different views on trade, immigration
By JOHN OTIS
South America Bureau
The Houston Chronicle
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA For the past six years, Democrats have accused President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress of pursuing counter-productive policies in Latin America or of ignoring the region altogether.
Now, following their victories in midterm elections giving them control of the House and Senate, many Democratic lawmakers are promising subtle policy changes on immigration, trade and U.S. military aid.
“We will be in a position to try to raise the profile of these issues,” said Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., poised to take the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee's foreign operations panel. “Congress doesn't drive the ship, but it has a big role in how far it goes and in which direction.”
The first sign of a changed U.S. relationship may appear today when, after years of bare-knuckle negotiations, U.S. and Colombian officials gather in Washington to sign a trade agreement.
But congressional passage of the agreement, as well as a similar deal with Peru, now seems in doubt because Democrats are generally more skeptical of trade pacts.
The most recent trade deal, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, passed by just one vote last year in the Republican-controlled House. In the Nov. 7 election, 34 House and Senate seats switched hands from supporters of the current model of international trade deals to critics, according to a study by Washington-based Global Trade Watch.
Some Democrats want to rewrite both the Colombia and Peru agreements to include, among other things, more environmental regulations and stronger guarantees for union organizers.
For now, it's unclear whether these issues can be resolved through side agreements or whether the trade deals will have to be renegotiated, which could take years.
“This doesn't mean they're dead on arrival. But they certainly will be delayed,” said Chris Sabatini, with the Council of the Americas, a New York-based business organization.
As for Mexico, many Democrats reject the hard-line position of some Republicans on immigration.
“Building a wall is not the symbol that the U.S. should have in its relations with Mexico, and there will certainly be a different tone with the Democrats,” said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
But John Bailey, a Mexico expert at Georgetown University, said the congressional power shift “will do little in the next biennium to rescue the U.S.-Mexico relationship from the inertia of the past five years.”
Bailey said the elections sent a mixed message on immigration, with several conservative Democrats elected in key races.
Farther south, Colombia stands as the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside of Israel and Egypt, but many Democrats are pushing for changes in how the money is spent.
Reaching out to leftists
Under the administration's “Plan Colombia” policy, the U.S. has provided nearly $5 billion in mostly military aid since 2000 to fight the country's narcotics traffickers and Marxist guerrillas. Although security has improved in many areas, the rebels remain a threat while tons of Colombian cocaine and heroin continue to reach the U.S.
“Six years and $4.7 billion later, the drug-control results are meager at best,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., told a congressional hearing last June.
Many Democrats want to reduce military spending and use the money to boost programs to fight poverty, relocate people displaced by Colombia's 42-year civil war and encourage farmers to plant legal crops.
“Democrats don't plan to walk away from Colombia. We just want to make sure that our investment is smart,” said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., a member of the House Rules Committee.
Elsewhere in the region, analysts say the Democrats will likely urge the Bush administration to foster cordial relations with leftist leaders who have recently been elected, including Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
The goal, they say, is to prevent these governments from getting too cozy with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who stands as Washington's fiercest opponent in the region. Democrats have been almost as critical of Chavez as the Republicans.
Mexico City Bureau Chief Dudley Althaus contributed to this report.