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Congress, not Bush, sets U.S. policy on Latin America

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 soon after Democrats took control of Congress in early 2007. But its impact has taken 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 that Democrats don't like.

Democratic lawmakers, several congressional staffers say, are likely to cut a $500 million request for Mexico as part of an anti-drug trafficking program known as the Merida Initiative. And influential Democrats like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have called for a thorough reassessment of U.S. policy toward the region on everything from Cuba and Venezuela to the drug war.

"It's the result of Democrats having a voice again," said Dan Restrepo, the director of the Americas Project at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. "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 advisers, said many Democrats believe the Bush administration had failed to advance U.S. interests in Latin America and that its policy in the region 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 strip the Colombian trade pact's fast-track provisions, which would have forced a House vote on the agreement within 90 legislative days. Bush complained that Congress had "stiffed" Colombia.

The Colombian trade deal came under attack from U.S. organized labor and human rights groups, who argue that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe must do more to change his country's labor laws and to protect union members and human rights activists from being murdered. The administration says that violence is down in Colombia and that the deal would generate U.S. export jobs.

The delay of the free trade agreement comes after Democrats cut $171 million from a $614 million military aid package for Colombia, according to the aid-tracking Website justf.org. An additional $55 million in military aid was withheld over human rights concerns.

The administration is bracing for a showdown over the Merida Initiative, the three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug trafficking package for Mexico unveiled in October by Bush. 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 war supplemental spending bill.

The administration hopes to supply helicopters, scanners and communications equipment and training to security forces as Mexico's President Felipe Calderon takes on the country's powerful drug cartels. More than 700 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico this year. The Calderon administration says the United States should shoulder some of the burden in its drug war, since the United States consumes drugs and is a source of guns used by gangs.

Democrats say the package is too tilted in favor of military hardware and should focus more on building Mexican institutions, like the judiciary.

At an April 9 speech before the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference in Annapolis, Md., Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said the Bush administration should be credited for the Merida Initiative, but he noted 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.

Republicans say cutting back on the Merida Initiative is a mistake.

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the package is "a rare opportunity" to build cooperation with Mexico. He said cutting back "would harm U.S.-Mexican relations and broader U.S. interests in the region."

White House drug czar John Walters said the Merida Initiative already includes programs like training for police and judges.

Aid to Colombia is partly conditioned on human rights certifications by the State Department, but Mexico considers these too intrusive. 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 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 longstanding U.S. embargo against Cuba would help the United State re-engage with Latin America.

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