Group Urges Bush to Look Beyond Andean 'Drugs and Thugs'.

On the eve of the Summit of the Americas in Mexico next week, an influential U.S. think tank is urging President George W. Bush to take a much broader approach to Andean countries, which it describes as "on the brink of collapse".

An interim report by a special Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) task force released here Thursday (January 8) warns that Washington, which has poured billions of dollars into the region in recent years, has placed "too great an emphasis on counter-narcotics and security issues, and too little emphasis on complementary, comprehensive, regional strategies".

"U.S. policy on 'drugs and thugs' in the Andes cannot achieve U.S. regional goals of democracy, prosperity and security," noted CFR Latin America specialist Julia Sweig, who directs the 'Andes 2020' project on behalf of the Council's Centre for Preventive Action.

Co-chaired by U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President (retired) Lt Gen Daniel Christman and former U.S. comptroller of the currency John Heimann, the task force calls for Washington to reallocate its aid in ways that will encourage rural development and fiscal and legal reforms to reduce the enormous gaps between rich and poor in the region.

"The strategy outlined in this report, 'Andes 2020', is built on the widely shared belief that sustainable, peaceful democracies in the Andean region depend as much on political, legal and socio-economic reform ... as on 'hard' counter narcotics and counter terror initiatives," the report states.

It describes the current U.S. emphasis on the latter as "a major weakness" that has failed to address underlying problems faced by the region's people.

The report comes amid White House preparations for Bush's meeting with Latin American leaders, including those from the five Andean countries - Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, in Monterrey, Mexico.

Independent U.S. analysts have expressed growing concern about what they describe as Washington's inattention to its southern neighbours since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, despite Bush's election campaign promise in 2000 to make the region a top priority.

On the trade front, the administration appears to have reduced its expectations for a far-reaching Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA) in favour of reaching bilateral or sub-regional accords, such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which it concluded with four of the region's nations last month.

On the political front, the administration has focused on supporting efforts by hard-line Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, to whom it provided 700 million dollars in mostly security and military aid last year, to subdue leftist insurgencies and reduce drug cultivation and trafficking.

It has also denounced with increasing frequency Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - whose brief ouster two years ago the administration appeared to support - and his ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro, an issue that has recently also cooled previously warm relations with Argentina under its new president Nestor Kirchner.

Most analysts here see a growing gap between U.S. and Latin American priorities, particularly given the growing tide of disillusionment with the neo-liberal economic policies pushed on South American governments by the so-called "Washington consensus" and the wave of populism that has swept left-leaning candidates into office throughout the continent.

The Bush administration has appeared almost oblivious to this trend, a point that is likely to be underscored at next week's summit, according to Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), an inter-hemispheric think tank here.

"Bush will find very sceptical leaders in Monterrey because his agenda is different from theirs," he told IPS. "They are concerned about promoting social and economic development for their countries, and he wants to talk about the 'war on terrorism' and drugs".

Shifter added that Bush might carry with him a modest proposal for a U.S.-backed social investment fund, but apart from that and his announcement Wednesday that he will ask Congress to enact a new guest-worker programme, the president is unlikely to bring anything new to the table.

The new CFR report appears designed to shake the administration out of its complacency and refocus its attention on the potential threats that U.S. interests face, particularly in the Andean region.

In addition to the two co-chairs, the bipartisan task force includes 20 prominent individuals and former senior policymakers, including the former vice president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Nancy Birdsall; financier George Soros and former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Alexander Watson.

The group said three priorities should guide U.S. policy toward the region.

First, Washington needs to push governments to ensure that power and wealth are more equitably distributed in each country, "with a commitment to strategic rural land reform".

In this connection, the group called for a thoroughgoing overhaul of the region's tax systems to impose and enforce progressive taxes, including property and income taxes. Such measures, according to Heimann, should become part of International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditionality.

In addition to accelerating land titling and registry, the Colombian government, in particular, should move forcefully to halt the seizure of land by right-wing paramilitary forces, left-wing guerrillas and drug traffickers, added the report.

Second, the group called for much greater and more multilateral efforts to provide incentives for coca farmers to grow legal crops, possibly through the creation of a special development fund for drug-producing countries administered by the World Bank.

Washington should also work with other donors to coordinate a region-wide aid strategy; impose financial sanctions against narco-traffickers, paramilitaries and their financial supporters; and channel more assistance to people displaced by the insurgency and the drug war in Colombia, in particular.

Finally, the group called for the administration to adopt a more regional approach to the major challenges facing Andean countries and to promote more cooperation among them.

It called for the negotiation of an Andean Free Trade Area and a customs union to reduce intra-regional tariff barriers, and for the expansion of security cooperation between armed forces along border areas.

It stressed that none of these measures should require increasing U.S. aid to the region, but that needs could be met by reallocating the aid in favour of more social and economic assistance.

[Source: IPS, Washington, 09Jan04]

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This document has been published on 10ene04 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.