The State Department's point-man for Latin America leaves his job later this month after more than two years guiding the Bush administration's policy for the western hemisphere. The official, Roger Noriega, won praise from some quarters for his outspoken criticism of Cuba and Venezuela, while other observers say he focused too much on those countries.
State Department officials say there will be no changes in current U.S. policy toward Latin America after Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega steps down on September 16. Since his Senate confirmation in July 2003, Mr. Noriega has presided over some successes - such as the recent congressional ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement - but also has had to deal with a particularly turbulent period in Latin American politics. Since late 2003, several elected presidents have been forced out of office in the face of popular unrest.
In February 2004, Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide resigned and fled his country, following an armed uprising. His departure led to the intervention in Haiti of a multinational force to stabilize the Caribbean nation. In April of this year, Ecuador's Congress dismissed President Lucio Gutierrez following violent demonstrations over his economic and political policies. In June, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa was also forced out of office. He said he could no longer govern in the face of continuing protests demanding nationalization of Bolivia's energy industry. As vice president in October 2003, Mr. Mesa had replaced President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a free market advocate who had also resigned in the face of mass demonstrations and strikes.
Mr. Noriega tells VOA weak democratic institutions are responsible for instability in some Latin American countries.
"There is a general weakness of democratic institutions that has to be addressed and that requires political leadership, making tough decisions to strengthen democratic institutions, to open up their economies, to punish people for being corrupt, to make it easier to start a business, to get more credit to the private sector because that's how you're going to have sustained economic growth," he said. "These are hard things and the United States will stand by countries that help themselves."
While agreeing that democratic institutions are weak, some observers of Latin America say rising disenchantment with the free-market model also is contributing to political instability. Michael Shifter of the Inter American Dialogue faults the Bush administration for being disengaged in Latin America, and warns that anti-Americanism is growing in the region.
"There's a lot of suspicion about the motives of the use of U.S. power, and also there is a sense that many of the economic models that were advocated by Washington have not really produced very satisfactory results for most Latin Americans," he said. "A lot of the opening of markets, privatization, liberalizing trade have taken place and yet Latin Americans, most of them, are not doing better. Poverty levels are still high, inequality has increased in almost every country. So there's a sense that somehow the prescriptions that Washington urged Latin Americans to adopt, and which they did adopt, really haven't produced the results that were expected.
Mr. Noriega rejects criticism that the Bush administration has been disengaged in Latin America, saying President Bush is deeply committed to promoting trade, democracy and human rights in the region.
Aside from political instability in general, the Bush administration is particularly worried about developments in Venezuela. Since taking office in 1999 after a landslide election victory, populist President Hugo Chavez has moved his oil-rich country closer to Cuba and taken measures to amass more power in the executive branch. Michael Shifter says Mr. Chavez also is seeking to project his anti-capitalist economic model to the rest of Latin America.
"Hugo Chavez is a very, very formidable figure," he said. "He clearly dominates politics in Venezuela and he has a broader agenda in Latin America, and of course he has enormous resources today because of the record price of oil. He does have a rhetoric that resonates in certain parts of Latin America, it's anti-American, it's anti-globalization, anti-market democracy, and he claims he has a superior model to what has been advocated by the United States. It's unclear to me whether that model is superior in fact, and I'm not sure he provides the answer for the rest of Latin America. But I think he's an important force and an important figure in the region and I think he poses a real challenge."
Outgoing Assistant Secretary Noriega spent much of his time trying to counter Mr. Chavez and his increasingly vociferous anti-American rhetoric. With mixed success, Mr. Noriega tried to persuade other Latin American countries to isolate the Venezuelan leader and he also engaged in a heated war of words with Mr. Chavez and his aides. Recently, Mr. Noriega and other top administration officials accused Venezuela and Cuba of seeking to promote instability in the hemisphere, particularly in Bolivia.
In his interview with VOA, Mr. Noriega called on President Chavez not to interfere in the affairs of Venezuela's neighbors.
"Just as we respect the sovereignty of Venezuela, even though we occasionally express concerns about the actions of the government in whether it's protecting democratic institutions in the country, protecting the democratic rights of the people, we nevertheless respect its sovereignty and we would hope Venezuela would respect the sovereignty of its neighbors too," he said.
How to deal with Venezuela will likely continue to be a top priority after Mr. Noriega's departure. Observers like Michael Shifter say much is at stake, including the prospects for liberal democracy in Latin America. Writing in the Washington Post last month, he urged the Bush administration to develop a consistent strategy to counter the Chavez government and suggested upgrading relations with partners Mexico and Brazil as the best way to preserve political gains in the hemisphere.
This will be just one of the challenges facing Mr. Noriega's nominated successor, Thomas Shannon, who has been serving as a White House advisor on Latin American affairs. His views on how he intends to deal with the region's challenges will no doubt emerge when he faces Senate confirmation hearings later this year.