Time (Latin America), December 25, 2000

What will President-Elect George W. Bush do if Fidel Castro dies during his watch, unleashing a massive outflow of Cuban refugees desperately fleeing the Albanian-like chaos of the post-Castro era? If Argentina falls into major economic disarray, will a Bush Administration bail it out as forcefully as the Clinton government backed Mexico and Brazil in the 1990s? How will Bush respond if Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias recognizes the Colombian rebels as the legitimate government of Colombia and signs an economic- and military-cooperation treaty with them?

Guessing at the answers to these questions on the basis of the speeches and position papers of candidate Bush is not only naive but also futile. While Bush made a much ballyhooed foreign policy address on Latin America in Miami earlier this year, the speech--called the "Century of the Americas"--served more to underscore his belief that the region is important--and to counter his opponent's experience with foreign policy elsewhere--than to put forward concrete new policies.

So if campaign promises do not offer a reliable guide, what about his experience and track record in Texas? As Governor, Bush had frequent interactions with Mexican government officials and business leaders, and became familiar with the problems that often spilled over the long, porous border shared by Texas and Mexico. Unfortunately, that gubernatorial experience is too short and limited to use for extrapolations on what Bush would do in a crisis.

Admittedly, crises are by definition uncertain. In fact, President-elect Bush may not have to face any during his term in office. So why not look instead at the comprehensive policy toward Latin America that Bush would employ? Because, despite the Miami speech, he will not have one.

Historically, U.S. governments have not acted toward Latin America in a planned, sustained way; they have reacted, often at the last minute, to specific crises. Cuba, Chile, Central America, Panama, Haiti, the debt crisis, the promotion of market reforms and democracy, NAFTA, the Mexican and Brazilian financial exigencies, drugs, hemispheric free trade and, more recently, Plan Colombia have all fleetingly commanded attention at the highest levels of the White House and Congress. But rarely has the region exerted the kind of gravitational pull that would force the integration of disparate initiatives into a carefully articulated and executed set of goals and policy efforts.

Compared with the long-standing European alliance, any threats from Russia or China, economic fragility in Japan or the possibility of disruption in the oil supply from the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean are viewed in Washington as benign neighbors with occasional low-level problems. With the exception of drugs, most situations in Latin America lack the geopolitical cachet that makes careers and boosts reputations. Therefore the region becomes the playground for pet projects, symbolic gestures and well-meaning programs run in an uncoordinated fashion by such agencies as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Justice Department.

Anticipating the performance of any Administration toward the region becomes an exercise in assessing the second-level appointees. Bush's top foreign policy advisers, such as Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, are traditional security types with no interest, background or significant contacts in Latin America. They are unlikely to focus on the region, so absent a crisis, things will go on much as they have.

One possible exception is that where President-elect Bush may indeed move aggressively on establishing a free-trade area of the Americas. He has accused Gore and Clinton of not marshaling political will behind the trade initiative. Bush may want to vindicate his father's vision for hemispheric free trade by, for example, visiting Brazil and offering a bold deal that Brazilians would be hard pressed to reject and from which other countries could not afford to be excluded.

But such historical initiatives require more than vision and will. They also depend on how busy Bush will be managing the slowdown of the U.S economy or any of the major international crises that customarily wreak havoc upon the agenda of American Presidents. Any initiative toward Latin America will also depend on Bush's relations with the U.S. Congress. The composition and political dynamics of the next Congress may be fundamental in shaping the U.S. role in the hemisphere, casting a different spin on Bush's slogan: "I am a uniter and not a divider." He might discover that he can unite the hemisphere, if he finds the time to do it.