WASHINGTON — An empowered Democratic Party has taken command of U.S. policy toward Latin America, stalling a free-trade agreement and taking aim at military aid programs for Colombia and Mexico.
This assertiveness began after Democrats took control of Congress in early 2007, but it took a dramatic turn in recent weeks, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derailing an effort by President Bush to force a vote on a free-trade agreement with Colombia.
Democratic lawmakers, several congressional staffers say, also are likely to cut back a $500 million request for Mexico as part of an anti-drug-trafficking program known as Merida Initiative. And influential Democrats have called for a thorough reassessment of U.S. policy toward the region on everything from Cuba and Venezuela to drug trafficking.
''It's the result of Democrats having a voice again,'' said Dan Restrepo, with the Center for American Progress, a think tank headed by President Clinton's former chief of staff, John Podesta. ``For the first six years of the Bush administration, Democrats were completely cut out of the picture.''
Restrepo, who helps coordinate presidential hopeful Barack Obama's Latin American advisors, said many Democrats believe the Bush administration has failed to advance U.S. interests in the region, and that the policy has been ``mismanaged and neglectful.''
The result is that some of Bush's signature efforts on Latin America are being scrutinized and even stalled by Democrats.
Last week, the House voted 224-195 to sidestep a rule that would have forced a swift House vote on the Colombia trade deal. Bush complained Congress had ''stiffed'' Bogotá.
The deal came under attack from U.S. organized labor and human-rights groups, which argue the country must do more to change its labor laws and protect union members and human rights activists.
The delay of the free-trade agreement came after Democrats cut $171 million from a $614 million military aid package for Colombia, according to the aid-tracking website justf.org..
The administration also is bracing for a showdown over the Merida Initiative, the three-year $1.4 billion anti-drug-trafficking package for Mexico unveiled by Bush in October. Congress is set to debate a $550 million initial outlay in the coming weeks, of which $500 million is for Mexico, as part of a $100 billion Iraq and Afghanistan spending bill.
The administration hopes to supply scanners and communications equipment, helicopters and training to security forces as Mexico's President Felipe Calderón takes on the country's powerful drug cartels. More than 700 people have died in drug-related violence so far this year.
Democrats say the package is too tilted in favor of military hardware and should focus more on strengthening Mexican institutions like the judiciary.
At an April 9 speech before the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference in Annapolis, Md., Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut said the Bush administration should be ''credited'' for the Merida Initiative but added that it had been ''concocted'' under the ``old war on drugs paradigm.''
''The Merida initiative will never succeed,'' he said, ``if we do not work to put in place adequate institutions that can systemically address public security and the rule of law.''
Tim Rieser, a Latin America aide for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a key member of the Senate appropriations committee, said Democrats ''want to be supportive'' and understand that Mexico's problems affect the United States ``and to some extent we contribute to them.''
But he said the package was ''one-dimensional'' in its security focus and faced stiff competition for U.S. aid dollars, including the need to help Iraqi and Darfur refugees and funding the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Rieser and other Democrats were skeptical that the United States should pay for eight Bell 412 EPs and three UH-60 Black Hawk transport helicopters.
''We've learned over the years that that is not the way to solve the drug-related crimes,'' he said.
Republicans say cutting back on the Merida initiative is a mistake.
Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the package is ''a rare opportunity'' to build cooperation with Mexico and cutting it back ``would harm U.S.-Mexican relations and broader U.S. interests in the region.''
White House drug czar John Walters said Plan Merida already includes programs for training police and judges. ''The program does not include guns and bullets,'' he said.
Aid to Colombia is partly conditioned on human-rights certifications by the State Department but Mexico considers these too intrusive, and Walters worries Democrats may propose similar conditions in the Merida Initiative.
''The degree to which our cooperation starts having overtones . . . that are reaching into another country and dictating decisions that are theirs, that's a problem,'' said Walters. The administration, he added, was prepared to work on ''legitimate measures'' to ensure ``accountability.''
Beyond taking aim at military aid, Democrats say they want a new approach toward Latin America.
Dodd proposed a new ''strategic partnership'' based on broader public security and rule of law, poverty and inequality and energy integration.
He said changing the long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba would help Washington reengage with Latin America.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, at an April 1 speech before the Organization of American States, said he wanted the United States to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, engage all nations including Venezuela and ''renew and invigorate'' the U.S. relationship with Latin America.
He said he wants to ''reassess'' the embargo on Cuba, a comprehensive immigration approach that does not include border walls, and a new John F. Kennedy-style Alliance for Progress initiative.
''The U.S.,'' he said, ``can no longer afford to take the goodwill of Latin America for granted.''