MIAMI - This was the week Latin America found out President Bush was serious when he defined the war on terrorism as: you are either with us or against us.
First it was Mexico's turn. In a snub to Mexican President Vicente Fox, the White House canceled its traditional Mexican Cinco de Mayo celebration Monday.
Then came Chile. On Tuesday, Bush signed a free trade agreement with Singapore. Chile has been waiting patiently for the Republican-led Congress to ratify its free trade agreement signed last year.
This stems from the refusal of Mexico and Chile to support a United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq.
Bush was asked about relations with Mexico and Chile last week. He gave a clipped response. "They are friends of ours, period," he said. It was hardly a ringing endorsement.
At the start of Bush's presidency, he met and spoke frequently with Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive. The two developed a close relationship. But they have not spoken in weeks. That despite Mexico's enormous importance to the U.S. economy and unresolved issues regarding an estimated 4-million undocumented Mexican workers living in the United States.
At a Miami conference sponsored by Florida International University last week, several panelists lamented the administration's apparent disregard for the region since Sept. 11.
All this has led some to talk of a general slide in U.S.-Latin American relations, down to their worst level in "10, maybe 20 years," according to Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, considered one of the most influential journalists working in Latin America.
He warned of growing disenchantment with the fruits of democracy in the hemisphere and the rising anti-U.S. sentiment, noting that during the war one TV channel in Peru stopped broadcasting CNN and switched to Al-Jazeera.
Other speakers at the conference spoke up for the administration. None more so than former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha, who recently retired to work for the Miami law firm Steel, Hector and Davis.
"To those why cry neglect and abandonment, I say nonsense," he said. In his first two years, Bush had met with more heads of state from Latin America than his predecessors, he said. While free trade with Chile had yet to be ratified in Congress, the White House had approved a treaty.
Indeed, there are some signs of engagement with the region.
The prime example, oddly enough, is Brazil's new left-leaning government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula. Despite opposing the war in Iraq, Lula has kept his criticism of Bush to a minimum.
The United States has reciprocated. Senior officials heap praise on Lula at every opportunity. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has made several trips. He is due back this month.
Even the International Monetary Fund, which until last year was a favorite target of Lula's criticism, has applauded his efforts to combine antipoverty plans with strict fiscal responsibility.
Taking its lead perhaps from Brazil, Mexico seems intent on repairing relations with Bush. After a brief meeting last week with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Mexico's Foreign Minister Ernesto Derbez said combating terrorism was one of his country's top priorities.
Mexico no longer holds out any serious hope of winning major concessions regarding its 4-million workers. But now it is trying another approach. After meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in San Diego recently, Mexico's Interior Minister Santiago Creel said Mexico would continue to push for a migration accord.
The United States' internal security depends on being able to identify who is living in the country, he pointed out. Wasn't it better providing legal documents to those 4-million Mexicans, he said, than not knowing their identities or who they worked for?
With realities like that, re-engagement with Latin America cannot be ignored.
- David Adams may be contacted at email@example.com