MARGARET WARNER: And joining me is Andres Oppenheimer, a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for the Miami Herald, focusing primarily on the U.S. and Latin America. His most recent book, Ojos Vendados, or Blindfolded Eyes, about corruption in Latin America, will be published in English later this year. Welcome Andres. Good to have you here.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER, The Miami Herald: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Very shortly after the September 11 attacks, you started writing about the fears that Latin Americans had about what impact that would have on the U.S.-Latin America relationship. Describe those for us.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Well, there were many Margaret. The biggest fear of Latin America was once again forgotten and neglected by the U.S.. Latin Americans were hopeful about this President. This was the first President in many years who showed a genuine really, you know, personal interest in Latin America. He had been governor of Texas. He didn't know much about foreign affairs, but this was the one region of the world he claimed to know something about. So he went around saying, I'm an expert on Mexico. He said he speaks some Spanish. He does babble some Spanish. He tries at least. When he was campaigning, he said he would make Latin America a primary focus of his presidency. Once he was elected, he made his first trip to Mexico. This was unheard of. All the other Presidents made their first official trip to Canada or somewhere else. And once he was inaugurated, his first official visit to the White House was the President of Mexico. This was a big change. Latin Americans were really hopeful that once, you know, for once they had a President who really cared about the region.
MARGARET WARNER: So they feared that the focus would shift.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: On September 11, you know, they feared and rightly so, that all of a sudden the U.S. would put all its attention on the war in Afghanistan and totally forget about Latin America.
MARGARET WARNER: So, do you think the fears have been borne out so far?
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Yes, they definitely have. Needless to say Washington is a one-issue town since September 11 -- national attention and Washington's attention, rightly so. But unfortunately this has been at the expense of minding our backyard. And the danger of all this is that we may win the war in Afghanistan, and we may lose the war on drugs. We may lose the war on immigration. We may lose the war on trade, on free trade. We may lose the war on the environment. We may lose a lot of other wars that affect our day-to-day life in the U.S. and they're being waginged right here in our backyard.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you see this sort of inattention being responsible for the fairly hands-off attitude, for example, that the U.S. is taking toward the crisis in Argentina?
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: This is a new approach they tried. The Bush Administration tried sort of a tough love approach to Argentina. They told Argentina, listen, we're tired of putting money into bottomless pit. You've got to get your act together and then we'll help you, and in a sense it was the right thing to do, but now there are a lot of people who are saying that we may pay a very heavy price. Why? Because Argentina has been our best ally for all these years, for the past ten years. And Argentina is a trendsetter, is a country that has an influence that goes far beyond its economy in the region. It is the third largest economy, but, you know, Chez Guevara was an Argentine. Argentina has a history of political influence in the region, and this collapse of the Argentine economy, this collapse of the Argentina political system may have a political contagion in the region.
MARGARET WARNER: Now also you've written a lot about how the new emphasis on security, border controls, on custom control is one, hurting the cross border economy, and two, really runs counter to certainly the whole thrust of Vincente Fox, the President of Mexico, the kind of open relationship he wanted.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: I was in Chihuahua on the border with Mexico, the Mexican side of the border a few weeks ago. They've lost 60,000 jobs in the Mexican state just because of the downturn in the U.S. economy and September 11. So what do you have? You have huge lines trying to cross the border, the trucks, they usually whiz by have, to wait for two or three hours. That is costing the truckers and exporters a lot of money. So trade is going down. People are losing their jobs. These whole security measures are costing them a lot. And tourism -- the Mexicans fear that all these security measures and the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act will have, as a result, that Americans who travel within the U.S. Where they now feel the airports are taking security measures but will not venture outside the U.S.. They're very concerned about a huge drop in tourism to Mexico.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's switch it around and talk about something related but almost more from the U.S. perspective, which is people were surprised to hear the ambivalence that many Latin American countries seem to feel or express right after the September 11 attacks. You, for instance, have written that you said Vincente Fox mismanaged Mexico's reaction to the September 11 attacks. How so?
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: He blew it. He was slow. He was bland. He didn't come strongly across right after the September 11 attack. This was an internal political thing within his cabinet. One side of his cabinet wanted him not to speak out too strongly in favor of the U.S. because he already had the image of being too close to the U.S. and they were trying to pass a law in Congress for which they needed the opposition's vote. So i think he followed bad advice. He was too slow in supporting the U.S., and too bland when he did it. But other than that, i think the response by Latin America was, at the political level, a response of strong and sincere, I think, support. But you're right, there was an ambivalence, and the people, the polls show that the people were not as supportive as the governments.
MARGARET WARNER: Some of the polls are astonishing. 60% in Argentina and Peru didn't want the U.S. to respond militarily and didn't want their governments to support it.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: It was sort of a mixed reaction. Of course you had the hard left which said the U.S. brought it on to itself, et cetera. But most people, they're attitude was this is not our war we should not get involved because this is a U.S. war and we should not get involved. That was sort of the general idea. But there was a lot of sympathy for the victims of 9/11.
MARGARET WARNER: But why do you think that is? I mean i think Americans would think of all the people on the planet - I mean the two groups that we are sort of culturally closest to are the europeans and the Latin Americans and that there would be a shared sense of being under threat or a kind of just a feeling of solidarity. And that really isn't there. What does that-- does that go back to the past? Does it go back to fears about U.S. intervention anywhere because of the history?
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Well, Margaret, let's be fair. There is one issue that has gotten totally ignored in this country, which is that the Latin American did support at the Organization of American States, which is the regional thing that you know, is here in Washington, they did support something that was exactly the same as what the Europeans did. They did approve a treaty or resolution saying that an attack on one country is an attack on us all and therefore we fully support, they said, the U.S. military retaliation against the attack of 9/11.
MARGARET WARNER: But going into that meeting, you yourself wrote that they faced a big decision whether to approve that or to remain on the sidelines, as if it were a close call or an open question.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Yeah, but they did it. And we have to give them credit because they did it at great political expense to some of the governments. At home that wasn't a popular move.
MARGARET WARNER: Why isn't it popular?
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Because a lot of people have a love-hate relationship. You know, most often are the good guys but not always. Let me give you an example. The Argentines, the Brazilians, a lot of South American countries complain that we go around the world preaching free trade, but when it comes to them trying to sell beef, corn, agricultural products, sugar, steel, they find all kinds of obstacles in trying to sell their goods to the U.S. market. So they say we're all for free trade, we're all for the free trade of the Americas, which is the plan of President Bush and President Clinton before him and to create a hemisphere wide free trade by 2005. They're all for that but let's make it a two-way street, and they're right on that.
MARGARET WARNER: So sometimes despite all the talk of the new ties, what you're saying is that there's still a lingering feeling that sometimes the U.S. is kind of too much the big brother or the--
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: I think that they wouldn't mind the U.S. being the big brother if the U.S. were a good brother. And most often it is but not always. And in this case of free trade, it sort of plays a double--.
MARGARET WARNER: So looking ahead, what do you think the most important things the U.S. and Latin America need to do to prevent these fears from being realized?
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: I think, Margaret, that Washington, the beltway at least is paying too much attention to the danger of economic contagion. You read a lot of papers and you hear a lot of people saying there is no danger of the Argentine contagion into other markets and from an economic point of view but I think there is a danger of political contagion. We're going to have elections in Brazil, the biggest country in South America, the eighth largest economy in the world now, in October of this year. The front-runner is a leftist, DeSilva who is openly anti-free trade and pretty anti American by many standards. We are going to have elections in Colombia where another populist is in the running ahead in the polls. So we have a very populist anti-American president in Venezuela, former -- Chavez. We have Fidel Castro, of course as usual, President for life in Cuba. So you could have a populist bloc in Latin America that may not be too sympathetic to the U.S..
MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying stay engaged.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Stay engaged and push ahead with free trade.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Andres Oppenheimer, thanks so much.
ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Thanks, Margaret.