George HW Bush and Latin America: An Overlooked Legacy

˙ Voces

Two years ago, as I toured the George H. W. Bush Library and Museum, it was hard not to be impressed by all the memorabilia showcasing the 41st president’s achievements, especially in foreign policy. As expected, the museum highlighted how the Bush administration managed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the 1991 Gulf War.   

Surprisingly, however, there was no story at all about what the Bush administration had accomplished in Latin America policy. Incredulous, I insisted with the Museum staff but they assured me there was virtually nothing. As happens all too frequently, Latin America had been overshadowed by the rest of the world and treated, once again, as the stepchild of foreign policy.

And yet there is an important story to be told, and it’s largely a positive one. It is also one that is worth recalling, especially in the current context, where diplomacy has been so devalued. To be sure, in the late 80s and early 90s Latin America was ripe for effective US engagement on issues ranging from trade to the defense of democracy.  The end of the Cold War – Central America had been a major battleground – coincided with the shift from authoritarian to civilian, democratic rule across the region.

But nothing was preordained. Wise statecraft from president Bush and his team played an enormous role in capitalizing on the opportunity. The US helped bring an end to the bloody civil wars in Central America (for which it bore considerable responsibility), resulting in elections in Nicaragua in 1990 and a peace accord in El Salvador in 1992. At the Organization of American States, the world’s oldest regional organization, the US joined with other Latin American governments to adopt landmark and exemplary resolutions on the collective defense of democracy, laying the groundwork for the Inter-American Democratic Charter adopted in 2001.  And the Bush administration convened two summits in 1990 (Cartagena) and 1992 (San Antonio) to talk with other Latin American governments about how to tackle the vexing drug problem.  

The Bush administration’s most notable and ambitious effort to foster inter-American cooperation was the 1990 Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, launched in 1990 aimed to build a free trade zone from “Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego.” The far-reaching strategy consisted of creating a multilateral investment fund and adopting the Brady Plan (named for then Treasury Secretary) to provide some debt relief for the region’s troubled economies. A major step in carrying out this initiative was the successful negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, eventually ratified and signed into law under the Clinton administration. 

These were no mean feats, packed into a single, four-year term. All required sustained and high-quality attention by an excellent team of skilled professionals.  What marked all of them was a staunch commitment to multilateral diplomacy and the value of respectful consultations to make any progress. This penchant for multilateralism was manifested throughout the George HW Bush administration, including the Gulf War.

Indeed, though it may be apocryphal, one story recounts that when President Bush asked Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gotari what the US could do to be most helpful, Salinas responded that he would welcome lower tariffs and more open trade: NAFTA was the result. That sounds entirely plausible, in keeping with a president who prized personal relationships and was notorious for writing notes, making phone calls, and asking others’ views.

The most controversial episode in Latin America during the Bush administration was the 1989 invasion in Panama to oust strongman Manuel Noriega. In fact, the only thing related to Latin America in the Bush Foundation are the handcuffs used in Noriega’s arrest. Noriega was wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges, and the administration was determined to forcibly remove him from power and bring him to justice. The invasion provoked a strong reaction in Latin America, however. Though Latin Americans had no love for Noriega’s criminal, dictatorial rule, for many the unilateral, military action had a dubious legal foundation and evoked memories of US interventionism during the Cold War and before. That Noriega had long been a CIA asset didn’t help assuage their concerns. It was a troubling throwback that cost many lives and much destruction and seemed out of character for an administration so committed to multilateralism.

Of course, some parts of the Bush legacy in Latin America have proved more enduring and fruitful than others. After three decades since the start of the Bush presidency, there are sharp differences and much intense debate about the evolution and current state of trade, drugs, and democracy throughout the hemisphere.      

Still, what the Bush administration showed is how crucial “style” is in diplomacy. Genuine and regular consultations are key to building trust and a sense of community. This is true generally, but especially so in Latin America, where the asymmetry with the United States is so pronounced and has strongly shaped inter-American relations, often with unhappy results.

George HW Bush’s record in Latin America teaches many lessons for constructively dealing with today’s hemispheric challenges. Perhaps, with time, that part of the 41st president’s legacy will be recognized, and find a well-deserved place in the Bush Museum in College Station, Texas.