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Candidates ignore world to the south

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday October 22, 1996

The future of this hemisphere depends on decisions which governments are making today, and which governments — including the U.S. government — will be making in the next five years. Yet there is a virtual blackout in the current presidential contest on foreign and national security policy issues — and, unfortunately, no one seems to care.

A lackadaisical press has let the candidates off the hook on these issues. And Bob Dole, meek and reined in, apparently by focus group-guided advisors, has let Bill Clinton off the hook, even though the Clinton administration’s management of U.S. policy toward Chile, Cuba and other Central and South American countries has been abysmal, with one lost opportunity after another.

The West’s victory in the Cold War opened up limitless opportunities for long-needed political and economic reforms. In the “old days,” whenever leaders of the hemisphere got together, the dominant themes were the Cold War, domestic insurgencies, repression, the lack of democracy, statist economies, spiraling inflation, capital flight, and the debt crisis.

Today the climate is much different. Almost every country in Latin America has rejected outdated mercantilism and import substitution as a strategy for economic growth. Instead, most nations have adopted free-trade arrangements. Result: Trade is growing, living standards are rising and new multilateral trade expansion institutions are making an impact — including NAFTA (which combines the 380 million people in the U.S., Canada and Mexico), MERCOSUR (which combines 200 million people in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay), the Andean Pact and other common market arrangements that link nations in Central America and the Caribbean region. Yet these same institutions are under attack by many in the U.S., from the left (Jerry Brown, Richard Gephardt) and the right (Pat Buchanan), and from Ross Perot.

Meanwhile, the statist philosophy of government ownership or control of most industries, and massive government subsidies of others is in serious decline in Latin America. Most countries have kicked the habit of merely printing money to finance government spending. Fiscal austerity is now front and center, with countries seeking to create stable currencies based on sound monetary policy. Result: Inflation is now being contained in most countries in the hemisphere.

Although much has changed in Latin America, much remains the same. There are still fundamental barriers to economic growth, trade expansion and individual freedom. Many governments have liberalized (i.e., privatized and deregulated) their economies, not because they are true believers in markets, but because debt or hyperinflation pushed them up against the wall. This has important implications for the future of liberalization in the region.

So, it would be both naive to assume that the great achievements of the past 10 to 15 years will continue and it would be dangerous to do so because the stakes are so high. There is certainly no guarantee that Latin America as a region will fully develop its potential. If it doesn’t that is a big problem for the rest of us — and especially those who live in the West and South.

The U.S. role in the future of the Western Hemisphere is an important issue. It deserved to be discussed in this election. Shame on the media, the candidates and the parties for ignoring it.

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