Commentary: Condoleezza Rice's book shows 'inattention' to Latin America during Bush years

November 7, 2011 

If political biographies of recent U.S. presidents and top foreign policy officials are any indication of what goes on in their mind — and I think they are — the new book by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks for itself: it’s about 98 percent about the Middle East, Russia and Asia, and 2 percent about Latin America.

Rice, whose boss President George W. Bush vowed during the 2000 campaign to make Latin America a “fundamental commitment” of his presidency, devotes only two of the 58 chapters of her memoir No Higher Honor to the region. That’s about 15 pages of the 766-page book, plus a few sporadic references here and there.

Granted, the United States suffered its worst attack since Pearl Harbor in 2001, during Rice’s tenure as National Security Advisor. That would have changed any U.S. administration’s foreign policy priorities.

But Rice’s book is not too different from other political memoirs by recent U.S. presidents and top foreign policy makers. Consider:

• Glancing through Bush’s recently released memoir Decision Points, I doubt that the pages referring to Latin America add up to 0.5 of the paperback edition’s 497 pages. I couldn’t find one single reference to Brazil, or its most recent leaders, on Bush’s book index. There are only a few paragraphs about Venezuela, and scattered references to Mexico and Chile, mostly linked to the latter two countries’ votes at the U.N. Security Council on the Iraq war.

• In former President Bill Clinton’s 2004 political biography My life, there are only about 10 pages of the 957-page volume that dealt with Latin America, or about 1 percent of the book. And of those, most are devoted to Haiti and Cuba, the countries that pose the biggest threats of massive migration crises to the United States.

• In former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2003 memoir Madam Secretary, there are about a dozen entries referring to “Latin America” in the 562-page book, not counting the travel log references to countries in the region and other scattered paragraphs about Cuba and Haiti.

To be sure, Rice’s just-released memoir contains some candid references to Latin American leaders that make an interesting read.

Writing about the year 2007, she describes Argentina’s presidential couple as “the ever-difficult Kirchners.”

Referring to the leaders she met at the 2006 inauguration of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, she writes that leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales “seemed completely out of his depth. He had no ideas — only slogans.” Rice adds that Morales’ gesture of publicly giving her as a present a Ukelele decorated with coca leafs on that occasion “spoke volumes about his immaturity.”

Rice admits that by the end of Bush’s first term, in 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his followers in Latin America were gaining steam “as a result of our inattention” to the region. She adds that hopefully “the time would come later to do something about it, should the (U.S.) president get a second term.”

Of course, Bush ended his second term without ever fulfilling his vow to turn Latin America into a foreign policy priority.

And one can already anticipate that President Barack Obama’s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political biographies once they leave office will not be too different. We already got a hint of it in this month’s issue of Foreign Policy magazine, where Clinton writes an article entitled, “America’s Pacific Century,” with a subtitle starting with “the future of geopolitics will be decided in Asia, not in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

My opinion: There is no question that Washington had no choice but to focus on Islamic terrorism following the 9/11 attacks, or that the United States will have to look at Asia as its biggest challenge — and opportunity — in the near future.

But the United States exports three times more to Latin America than to China, according to U.S. figures. Altogether, the Western Hemisphere already accounts for 43 percent of U.S. exports, and with Latin American countries growing and their middle classes expanding rapidly, that percentage is likely to increase significantly.

In addition, the Western Hemisphere is the source of about 50 percent of U.S. oil imports, and the No. 1 foreign problem when it comes to immigration, drugs or violent gang activity. Latin America deserves more than 2 percent of U.S. leaders’ attention.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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