Image: Colombia-coca 1
Colombian drug enforcement police patrol a coca field in Narino province in the south.
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msnbc.com

In his campaign for president, George W. Bush vowed to avoid making America the world’s policeman in places like Kosovo and Somalia. But starting with Mexico — the country he chose for his first official trip abroad — Latin America presents critical challenges to this administration that will be difficult to ignore. Take three mammoth political issues Bush faces right off the bat — the high price of oil, the growing number of illegal migrants coming across our southern border and a raging drug epidemic.

MSNBC dispatched news teams to three countries — Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela — and throughout the United States to explore those very issues, all of which deeply affect millions of Americans and their communities.

The hottest and most divisive issue between the United States and Mexico is immigration. The United States wants it to remain tightly controlled, Mexico wants open borders.

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement unleashed a wave of investment and generated some $230 billion a year in cross-border commerce in 2000 — a 180 percent increase over 1993.

But many Mexican officials, even those who strongly support free trade, are unhappy that U.S. immigration laws have failed to follow suit. Indeed, a U.S. law passed in 1996 beefed up border patrols and created even stiffer penalties for illegal migrants.

But the law hasn’t stopped the flow. In fact, by some estimates, twice as many illegal Mexicans have crossed into the United States each year since 1996, and at greater peril. Rights activists and Mexican officials have raised serious concerns about the hundreds of Mexicans who have died trying to cross hazardous terrain in an effort to evade border authorities. Thousands of Mexicans populate U.S. prisons, some with terms of six years, for violating immigration laws.

“We feel it is a black spot in U.S.-Mexican relations that has to be resolved,” says the Mexican Consul General in Chicago, Carlos M. Sada.

Mexican migrants have come to play a key role in U.S. economic prosperity by filling especially labor-intensive jobs that Americans reject. And immigration will be harder than ever to ignore, because it is one of the top items on the agenda of newly elected Mexican President Vicente Fox, the politician who finally broke the ruling party’s seven-decade-hold on the country’s highest office.

Even before the U.S. election, Fox came to the United States, calling for a new approach to immigration and courting both Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore. He is pressing for a deal that would commit the United States and Mexico to the eventual opening of their borders, much like the arrangement among the countries of the European Union.

Bush has said he would support allowing more highly skilled workers into the country, as well as expanding a program that allows temporary workers — moves that at least Texas ranchers and many corporations would welcome.

By choosing to make Mexico his first foreign destination, Bush has suggested a resolve to make good on his election promises.

But immigration is a touchy issue even in the best of times — inflaming labor groups and stirring population growth concerns. Now, with the U.S. economy flagging, immigration may become too hot to handle.

“When (recession) happens, everyone looks for a scapegoat, and migrants are the perfect target,” said Sada.

Colombia's drug war
The start of Bush’s term also coincides with the kick-off of U.S. military assistance for Plan Colombia, an anti-drug initiative that Bush blessed during the presidential campaign.

The $7.5 billion plan, largely conceived by the United States and pressed on Colombian President Andres Pastrana, is not only intended to wrest control of the country from narcotics traffickers, whose biggest market is the United States. It is also aimed at reviving Colombia’s crumbling economy, ending a 37-year-old war between the government and leftist rebels, and strengthening the country’s weak democratic institutions.

The $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to carry out the program, however, is largely military assistance aimed at stopping the production of drugs that end up on U.S. streets.

Even among politicians who supported the deal publicly, many expressed doubts in private. Still, it was the politically expedient way to fight Colombia’s massive drug trade.

There is no question that the risks of Plan Colombia are great — for Colombian civilians as well as neighboring countries, which face a potential rush of refugees fleeing the drug war, and for American “trainers” who could become targets in the country’s civil war.

Many experts warn that Plan Colombia could push the United States into a wider conflict. After all, the “trafficantes” have an enormous amount at stake. The United Nations estimates the worldwide market for illegal drugs to be about $400 billion a year, or 8 percent of all world trade. The profits afford traffickers heavy weaponry and the ability to corrupt Colombian authorities.

To many, U.S. military involvement in Colombia is a chilling reminder of how the Vietnam War started, with military advisers. “It’s just a question of when President George W. has to go to Andrews Air Force Base to meet the first body bag,” says Riorden Roett, director of Western Hemisphere program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Then you have a full-blown foreign policy crisis on your hands. Fortunately, (Secretary of State Colin) Powell knows that.”

Venezuela's 'Chavismo'
But it is the often-overlooked nation of Venezuela that some experts say could pose “the most difficult test” in Latin America for the Bush administration.

At the heart of this prediction is President Hugo Chavez, whose personal charisma and rhetoric have given rise to the term “Chavismo.” Because of his politics, some have dubbed him “the new Castro.”

But what makes Chavez more than your average populist is that he has leverage — Venezuela has one of the biggest oil reserves in the world and is one of the main suppliers of oil products to the United States. Caracas has just taken over OPEC’s presidency and has been assertive in curtailing production to keep oil prices high, a strategy Chavez hopes will raise his country out of poverty.

The former colonel, who led a failed coup in 1992, finally entered office by a crushing landslide in 1998, carried by his populist appeal to the country’s teeming poor.

At every turn, Chavez’s election seems to run counter to what many in Washington initially viewed as a positive trend in the region toward greater democracy and marketplace economics.

Chavez has pushed through measures that have vastly expanded presidential powers and erode the power of the judicial and legislative branches, freedom of the media and civilian supervision of the military.

Abroad, he has curried favor with some of the top names on Washington’s list of rogues, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. In a show of solidarity with longtime Communist dictator Fidel Castro, Chavez recently made a deal to provide cheap oil to Cuba, defying sanctions imposed by the United States.

Also troublesome to Washington policymakers is that Chavez has been a vocal critic of the U.S. backing of Plan Colombia, which he charges is a dangerous military approach that will not win the drug war. Washington and Bogota have charged that Chavez has been providing support to Colombian guerrillas, a charge Chavez has denied.

The Clinton administration dealt with Chavez through “positive engagement” — basically, humoring him. In Washington, however, there is growing support for getting tough with Chavez before he does real damage to U.S. interests. The right-wing Cuban community, in particular, is expected to press President Bush to punish Chavez for his support of Castro.

But doing so could have unpredictable results, and that could be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests. Not only could Chavez stem Venezuela’s oil flow to the United States or undermine U.S. oil companies operating in Venezuela, he could take a more activist role in regional leftist movements, including the guerrilla war in Colombia. Chavez’ nationalist stance already plays well to a frustrated and impoverished public, and the United States could spur him on.

“The U.S. has nothing to gain from aggressively confronting Venezuela,” councils the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on Western hemisphere affairs. “This will not succeed in changing the behavior of President Chavez; more likely it will provoke him to further challenge U.S. policy.”

Kari Huus is an international correspondent for MSNBC.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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