He may not be comfortable discussing unrest in East Timor, or pronouncing the name of the leaders of Turkmenistan, but President-elect George W. Bush considers the rest of the Western Hemisphere "our backyard" and will have several opportunities in his first year in office to make Latin America a trade and foreign policy priority.
During the campaign, Mr. Bush said he would kickstart the stalled process of getting a free trade agreement of the Americas signed by 2005. The agreement would build on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 1994, and would unite 34 of the countries in North, Central and South America into what President Clinton once said would be "the world's largest market."
The first order of business would be a bruising battle in a divided Congress over fast-track authority, the legislative tool that Mr. Bush will need to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal. Under fast track, trade deals are brought to Congress for approval only when complete. Congress then votes on the agreement without having the chance to add amendments that suit the needs and wishes of individual members.
"I'd expect that within the first 100 days in office he'll propose approval of fast-track authority," said Sidney Weintraub, an economist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for international finance and development.
Even though Republicans narrowly control the House of Representatives, Mr. Bush will need to reach across the aisle to Democrats for help in getting fast-track authority approved. Mr. Weintraub expects that the need for bipartisan cooperation will provide Democrats an opportunity to attach environmental and labor standards to the bill, although Mr. Bush has made it clear that he does not support such standards if they are too rigidly drawn.
In negotiating a trade deal, Mr. Bush would also have to heed strongly voiced opposition to such side agreements from some Latin American nations, led by Brazil, that fear that labor and environmental standards attached to a trade deal could be used as protectionist shields by American businesses that feel threatened by Latin American competition.
In a campaign speech in Miami in August, Mr. Bush said the Clinton administration dropped the ball on Latin America after losing the legislative battle to win fast-track authority. In the speech, he said that by the time the third Summit of the Americas meets, a fast-track bill will already have been introduced in Congress.
"When the next president sits at the Americas Summit in Quebec next April, other nations must know that fast-track authority is on the way," he said during the campaign.
Although Mr. Bush criticized President Clinton for stalling the drive for a free trade agreement of the Americas, the process has actually been chugging along, though largely out of sight. Negotiating teams have continued to work on technical details, and when trade officials gather in Quebec, a substantial framework for the trade negotiations leading to a 2005 deal will be in place.
"The 2005 date was set at the first Americas Summit in Miami in 1994 and reconfirmed at the second in Santiago," said Richard E. Feinberg, a former senior director of the National Security Council's Office of Inter-American Affairs under President Clinton and now a professor at the graduate school of international relations at the University of California in San Diego. "All the major players remain committed to the 2005 date."
During the campaign, Mr. Bush talked about developing a "special relationship" with Mexico, which is one of the few foreign countries he has ever visited. Referring more broadly to all of Latin America, he said he would "look south, not as an afterthought but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency."
As governor of a border state, Mr. Bush has had a front-row seat on the expansion of international trade, and the effect on Texas has been substantial. According to a recent study by the Council of the Americas, Texas exports to Mexico have more than doubled since Nafta came into force in 1994.
Mr. Bush will not have to worry about union opposition to new international trade deals as much as Vice President Al Gore would have, but there is a segment of the Republican Party that has become increasingly protectionist and could complicate any trade deal. That could force Mr. Bush to take a page from Mr. Clinton's playbook and cast increased trade in political and strategic terms, as Mr. Clinton did in winning a trade vote on China.
Mr. Bush had promised to meet with Mexico's president, Vicente Fox Quesada, even before Mr. Fox was inaugurated on Dec. 1, a signal that the administrations of both countries, starting at roughly the same time, would work in tandem to resolve common problems like illegal immigration, illicit drugs and environmental pollution. Because of the extraordinary delays in the American election, the meeting never took place, but Mr. Bush sent a congratulatory message to Mr. Fox on the day of his inauguration.
Mr. Fox has already taken a pre-emptive lead on some of these areas. During the summer he visited Mr. Clinton and both presidential candidates, and talked freely about his ideas for deepening Nafta and taking measures to reduce barriers that prevent Mexican workers from entering the United States to find work.
Mr. Fox's ideas were not warmly embraced by either Democrats or Republicans, and a close relationship with him and Mexico could put Mr. Bush into a difficult position with members of his own party.
"He will, as he said, have a 'special relationship' with Mexico, but the question now is what kind of relationship will it be," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, who supported Mr. Gore. "Here is where a Bush presidency might run into real trouble."
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