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Posted April 21, 2003
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The Faraway War Set Latin America on Edge





BUENOS AIRES — The City Council here is considering a measure to rename United States Street "The Street of the Iraqi People," but others can't wait and have already pasted over the street signs. Boycotts of American companies and products have been organized all over Latin America, and in the Brazilian resort town of Olinda, the owner of a popular bar has posted a placard that reads: No Americans allowed.

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Associated Press

Bolivian Indians, above, against the Iraq war.

Though distant, the war now ending in Iraq is very much on Latin Americans' minds, and the result has been a burst of anti-Americanism more intense than any in recent years. Seeing American troops patrolling Baghdad's streets or raising their flag stirs old and uncomfortable memories here, as well as fears for the future.

This is, after all, a part of the world that experienced three American invasions over the last 20 years: in Grenada, Panama and Haiti. The United States military conducted long and ultimately unsuccessful nation-building exercises in Haiti and Nicaragua early in the 20th century.

The United States is also paying for what is seen here as indifference to an economic crisis that swept this region a few years after its leaders took American advice to open their markets and embrace globalization. Now Latin Americans see a United States decision to use military power even at the cost of international cooperation.

"When you had the promise of globalization and free markets, people warmed up to the idea that the American dream of prosperity might come to us," said Felipe Noguera, a poll taker and political analyst here. But now public opinion throughout the region has again become, he said, "like a growling dog."

While the current attitude evokes a long tradition of blaming the United States whenever dark times come, part of it is less anti-American than specifically anti-George W. Bush. Jimmy Carter is remembered fondly in many quarters for his emphasis on human rights, and anti-American sentiment was also muted under Bill Clinton, whose humble origins, gregariousness and even sexual escapades endowed him with a quality much valued by Latin Americans, that of "calor humano," or human warmth.

Mr. Bush, in contrast, is seen as cold and callous, and many in Latin America harbor harsh views of how he took power, comparing the 2000 election to their own experience with elections. "None of this would be happening if Florida's electoral votes hadn't been stolen from Gore with the help of the conservative majority of the Supreme Court," the Brazilian columnist Luis Fernando Verissimo lamented last Sunday.

Some of the officials the Bush administration have chosen to argue its case carry a similar burden. John D. Negroponte, the chief delegate to the United Nations, is remembered by intellectuals here as the ambassador in Honduras in the 1980's who oversaw efforts by contra rebels to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. Elliott Abrams, the White House's top adviser for Middle East policy, is known for his role in the Iran-contra scandal.

For the many Latin Americans who believe history is one long conspiracy, the Iraq invasion has been like manna from heaven. Even before it, some intellectuals argued that Osama bin Laden was really an American double agent who organized the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in complicity with the C.I.A. in order to justify military intervention in the Islamic world.

Now, after the Iraq war, every official American act in this region is likely to be looked at with suspicion and distrust. An Associated Press report that the United States has been quietly buying up computerized data banks that contain the names, addresses, telephone listings and identity card numbers of hundreds of millions of people in 10 Latin American countries drew broad criticism and expressions of alarm throughout the region last week.

The company that collected the information and sold it to the United States government said the only goal was to improve control of immigration. But Latin Americans saw Big Brother-like purposes, and the governments of Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica ordered investigations.

The Iraq war itself is seen less as a battle for freedom than an attempt to secure oil supplies, awakening suspicions in the region's resource-rich countries. In Argentina and Brazil, some commentators are warning that a looming global shortage of drinkable water may make the Amazon and Patagonia future targets of an American desire to control natural wealth.

Such sentiments are strongest among those on the left. But even some right-wing Latin Americans who once allied themselves with Washington are complaining that the United States has been hypocritical.

"When our countries faced internal terrorism in the 1970's and we wanted to eliminate subversion, you wouldn't allow it," a retired Chilean military official groused, speaking on condition he not be named. "Now you're the ones facing a threat, and you're doing exactly what you told us we shouldn't do."

Indeed, a remarkable thing about the current mood is how little sympathy there is for the United States even among the pro-free-enterprise and pro-democracy moderates who gained so much in the 1980's and 90's, during Washington's bipartisan campaign throughout the region to couple free trade and the restoration of civilian democratic rule. One prominent economist who often speaks well of the American system volunteered in a recent conversation that the Bush administration had "shot itself in the foot" in Iraq.

Such fallout from the war seems certain to make it more difficult for the United States to achieve a broad range of policy objectives in the region, including the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Last week, for instance, Argentina's interim president, Eduardo Duhalde, announced he was reversing a 12-year policy of condemning human rights violations in Cuba and would abstain in the next United Nations vote on the matter.

"We consider it inopportune" to condemn Cuba, "considering that this war in Iraq is a unilateral violation of human rights" and the United States has begun to threaten Syria, he said., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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