George H.W. Bush: Ambitious Agenda for the Americas

President George H.W. Bush’s policy agenda for US-Latin American relations was comprehensive and  wide-ranging, arguably more so than that of almost any other US president, the author points out. (Photo: National Archives)

Peter Hakim, president emeritus and a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue: Bush opened the negotiations with Canada and Mexico that produced the NAFTA accord. (Photo: Inter-American Dialogue)

In Latin America, Bush will be most remembered for his trade initiatives.


President  George H. W.  Bush and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, in their book, A World Tranformed, a review of the Bush administration’s foreign policy making, apologize to their readers for having to omit more than they could include. Among the omissions was anything to do with Latin America. That is a shame, a great loss since Bush, more than any other president in memory, constructively reshaped US policy and practice on a host of critical issues in Western Hemisphere affairs, and put in place some of his most enduring achievements  

In 1988, the year Bush was elected, the Inter-American Dialogue issued a report that painted a grim picture of Latin America, and its shaky, often tense relationship with the US. The region was still battling a prolonged debt crisis that had undermined economic growth for most of the 1980s, which came to be known as the “lost decade.” Despite some encouraging peace initiatives, brutal civil wars were relentlessly battering Central America. While most of Latin America, after some twenty years of predominantly military rule, had restored constitutional democracy, the new democracies were threatened by their crushing economic burdens, weakened and damaged political institutions, and the continuing threat of further military interventions.  For its part, the US was viewed, often justifiably, by many in Latin America as a regressive force, that had caused or contributed to all of these problems and was more of an obstacle than an aid to their resolution. And, it is true that Washington had supported some of the coups that brought military governments to power, and had maintained cordial relations with most of the region’s military or dictatorial regimes, though the US did break with Pinochet regime in Chile in Reagan’s second term. The  US was widely viewed Latin America as at least partly responsible for Central America’s prolonged civil wars, and for blocking the route to their resolution. The US cannot be faulted for Latin America’s debt crisis, but Washington could certainly have done more to assist the recovery of the region’s troubled economies.

Coming to power at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bush administration substantially reordered US policy in the Americas. It downplayed the US’s long preoccupation with security matters and the dangers of communist encroachment in the region, and gave new attention to economic cooperation, broader regional integration, AND the strengthening of democracy.  At the tail end of Bush’s term in office in 1992, according to another Dialogue report, the opportunities for sustained cooperation among Western Hemisphere nations had never been greater. The report noted that Latin American concerns about Washington’s dominance had subsided along with fears of further US unilateral interventions. Across the Americas, the report noted, interests and values were converging.  In retrospect, the Dialogue may well have exaggerated the warming of US-Latin American ties and the prospects for ever closer collaboration.  Still several dramatic policy changes were introduced during the Bush presidency, and produced some fundamental alterations in inter-American relations, particularly the shift from unilateral initiatives framed in Washington to  enhanced emphasis on multilateral approaches to regional challenges.

--Only a few months after President Bush’s inauguration, his administration announced the Brady Plan (named for the then new Treasury Secretary), which for the first time since the debt crisis exploded in the early 1980s, offered a measure debt relief to Latin America’s hard pressed and faltering economies. To be sure, although welcomed in principle, the Brady Plan was criticized for being too modest and too late, and for mainly helping the better off countries. But it recognized the need for debt forgiveness, which the Latin Americans had long called for, and which clearly helped in repairing the finances of many nations.

--Demonstrating its commitment to multilateral initiative in regional affairs, the Bush government joined with the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Contadora group of Latin American countries in actively pursuing negotiated settlements of the Central American wars. The US influence was crucial in getting Nicaragua’s Sandinista leadership to agree to an internationally-monitored presidential election, which then President Daniel Ortega lost to opposition figure, Violeta Chamorro, and allowed for the establishment of a democratic government. Similarly in El Salvador, the US played  a key role in securing a peace accord between a highly conservative government and the FMLN guerrillas—guaranteeing the guerrilla’s participation in the country’s electoral politics once they laid down their arms. In Guatemala, a guerrilla insurgency, although declining in intensity, continued for several more years. The Bush policies succeeded, but it is important to note that these three Central American nations, although no longer at war, still bear many of the scars of the internal conflicts and, together with Honduras, are today afflicted by deep-seated political, economic and security challenges, leading to a steady outflow of many thousands of their citizens. Democracy is barely holding on.

-- With the Bush administration’s strong support, the Organization of American States, at a time when many Latin American nations had only recently replaced military regimes with civilian governments, unanimously approved several resolutions calling on for collective hemispheric action to prevent coup d’états and other interruptions of democratic rule. Although they may have had some moderating influence in a few instances, they were less successful than had been hoped. They did provide the basis for the subsequent approval in 2001 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, an impressive document but one has not yet garnered the consensus necessary to turn it into an effective instrument for protecting democracy.   


--In Latin America, Bush will be most remembered for his trade initiatives. These were his most consequential and enduring contributions to inter-American relations. In mid-1990, his administration opened the negotiations with Canada and Mexico that produced the NAFTA accord, which was signed by all three countries just before Bush left office, and then gained the needed legislative approval from the three partners one year later in 1993. Although subjected to intense criticism and now under great pressure from the demands of the Trump administration, NAFTA remains one of the world’s largest and most successful free trade agreements. And it was not many months after the start of NAFTA negotiations that Bush, just prior to an extended visit to Latin America, proposed the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, which called for a hemisphere-wide free trade pact, bringing together all nations of the Americas. That idea was the central focus of discussion among the hemisphere’s heads-of-state at the first Summit of the Americas meeting in Miami in 1994. Following the Summit, negotiations were initiated toward the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). The negotiating sessions were slow, erratic, and bumpy and were finally halted short of an agreement in 2005, largely because of irreconcilable differences between Brazil and US. Even though the FTAA talks failed to produce an accord, the US developed free trade agreements ten other Latin American countries in addition to Mexico.

President Bush pursued an unusually ambitious, and mostly well-conceived agenda in Latin America.  It should be no surprise, however, that he also committed some missteps. The worst perhaps was his invasion of Panama in 1989, just one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the US’s  last major military intervention in Latin America. Yes, Bush succeeded in ending Noriega’s cruel and criminally corrupt dictatorial rule, and opened the way for Panama’s subsequent turn toward democracy. But the costs were extremely high—500 or more civilian deaths according to Pentagon figures and a battered economy. And Latin Americans from across the region were shocked and puzzled by Washington’s massive and unilateral use of force just as the Soviet threat was disappearing.  

Another misstep, one that has come back to haunt the US, was the failure of the Bush and subsequent administrations, once fighting diminished was to assure sufficient aid to Central America to allow the rebuilding of its economies and institutions. Bush also stuck with a hard-line position on Cuba, just at the time that Soviet aid was drying up and the island’s economy beginning to crash.  During the Bush presidency, the US did seek to revise US anti-drug policy as more and more evidence accumulated that the war on drugs was counterproductive. Similar to his approach on other regional policies, Bush sought to pursue a multilateral course by bringing together the leaders of Latin America’s drug producing countries to discuss alternative strategies, but in the end, US policy remained largely unchanged, focused mainly on halting the cultivation and transport of narcotics to the US. The demand side of the equation and the human costs of the drug war continued to be neglected.

President Bush’s policy agenda for US-Latin American relations was comprehensive and  wide-ranging, arguably more so than that of almost any other US president.  No president has had more ideas or worked harder to pursue a region-wide partnership among the 35 countries of the Americas. What a difference from today, when a US government is undoing what little there is holding the Americas together.

Peter Hakim is president emeritus and a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue. From 1993 to 2010, he served as president of the organization. He wrote this column for Latinvex. 

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