WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans and Democrats charged the Bush administration Thursday with a failure to show leadership in Latin America at a time when the region is deep in crisis.
The handling of a free-trade agreement with Chile, immigration negotiations with Mexico and policy on Cuba all came under scrutiny at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee (search) nomination hearing for Roger Noriega (search) for the State Department's top post in the region.
"This administration's policy in regard to Latin America has been in drift for the last two years," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
President Bush's pledged during his campaign to make this the "century of the Americas," but the fighting against terrorism and the war on Iraq has diverted attention from the hemisphere.
Colombia's civil war continues, Argentina suffers from a deep recession and political crises continue in Haiti and Venezuela.
More than two years into the Bush administration, Noriega is seeking to become its first confirmed assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs. Bush's original nominee, Otto Reich, was denied a hearing in 2001 because the committee, then led by Democrats, considered him unqualified.
Reich was given a recess appointment, but Bush declined to remove him as a nominee when his term ended last year — especially after the new Republican Foreign Relations chairman, Richard Lugar, suggested that someone else be nominated.
Noriega, the current ambassador to the Organization of American States, had been a committee staff member under former Sen. Jesse Helms and is likely to be confirmed.
Lugar, R-Ind., and other committee members used the hearing as a forum on the administration's Latin American policies. When Noriega said the Sept. 11 attacks had derailed hopes for an immigration agreement with Mexico, Lugar wasn't satisfied.
"Life goes on, our government has a lot of priorities," Lugar said. "We ought to be capable of doing many things at the same time."
Lugar said he was bothered that the free-trade agreement with Chile would be delayed because of its opposition to the war in Iraq. He rejected suggestions that the Bush administration couldn't submit a treaty because of an anti-Chile sentiment in Congress — and said the administration had to take charge of the issue.
Asked by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., whether Chile should "pay a price" for its anti-war stand in the U.N. Security Council, Noriega said the treaty should be considered on its own merits, regardless of the Iraq vote. Dodd was the strongest opponent to Reich's nomination.
Several ..committee members, including Republicans, have been critical of Bush's support for the Cuba embargo, though they have become less vocal since Fidel Castro began his crackdown on dissidents last month.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who this week sponsored a bill to lift the Cuban travel ban, questioned Noriega about encouraging Cuban democracy through "people-to-people" exchanges. The Bush administration in March limited these exchanges by tightening restrictions on educational travel.
Noriega said he favors the exchanges, if they are more than just tourism.
"It would be something that I hope we could do more of, as a matter of fact," he said.