Bush Seen as Out of Touch on Latin America


(IPS) -The policies of the George W. Bush administration lag behind public opinion on a host of issues relating to Latin America, according to a new poll of likely voters across the U.S.

The poll, released Friday by Zogby International, polled over 2,700 people and found that most of them are in favour of revising policies towards Cuba and think the "war on drugs" is a failing effort.

Other questions found that likely voters are split on a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented migrants in the U.S., and pluralities support revising the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), attaching human rights conditions to the proposed U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, and lowering tariffs on imported ethanol fuel from Brazil.

"The poll results indicate that American public opinion is far more open and flexible on issues of importance for U.S. relations with Latin America than current policy would suggest," said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, which worked with Zogby on the poll.

Among the most striking results of the poll was the sharp dissatisfaction of respondents regarding the "war on drugs", which has landed millions of U.S. citizens in jail and strongly affects U.S. relations with some Latin American countries, especially leading producers of the coca plant — the raw ingredient of cocaine — such as Colombia and Bolivia.

Three-quarters of those surveyed said that the "war on drugs" is a failing effort. Strong majorities held this position across every demographic breakdown — little difference could be found between age groups, religions, political affiliations, and regions.

Another poll result that showed a striking gap between policy and public opinion came on the question about Cuba.

Asked if, with longtime Cuban ruler Fidel Castro out of power, respondents thought that it was time to revise Cuba policies, nearly six in 10 said yes.

U.S. Cuba policy, a pattern of strained relations since Castro led a communist revolution in 1959 on the island-nation of 11 million, has vacillated between periods of increased liberalisation and heightened tensions — the latter being the focus of the Bush administration, which has upheld a strict embargo and tightened travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans.

But unlike the "war on drugs" question, the Cuba question did get more mixed results.

More than four in five of Democratic respondents thought that Washington’s Cuba policy needed to be changed. But only 35 percent of Republicans supported changing policies. A majority of 60 percent of independent voters supported revising Cuba policies.

The disparity of opinions on Cuba policy can also be clearly viewed across the ideological spectrum. From the farthest left, self-identified as "progressives", to the farthest right, the "very conservative" (excluding libertarians), a clear pattern becomes apparent.

Ninety-five percent of progressives, 76 percent of liberals, 70 percent of moderates, a third of conservatives, and 22 percent of those who identified as very conservative supported revising Cuba policies.

On a question asking if all U.S. citizens should be allowed to travel to Cuba, 68 percent of respondents said yes — again with 85 percent of Democrats responding affirmatively and a plurality of 46 percent of Republicans supporting the idea.

A majority of 60 percent of respondents also think that "U.S. companies should be allowed to trade with Cuba," but a plurality of 44 percent of Republicans were against the idea.

These numbers supporting a change in Cuba policy have grown significantly over the past year. A July 2007 Zogby Interactive poll found that just over half of U.S. respondents thought that the U.S. should lift the travel restrictions and embargo.

But it appears that the anti-Castro Cuban-American community may still have a firm grasp on U.S. policy.

Speaking more generally about the results of the poll, Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue said, "It also suggests, however, that public opinion may not be all that relevant in decisions regarding policy issues of greatest concern to Latin America — that these may be largely determined by smaller groups with intense sentiments about the issues."

Similarly, amid deteriorating relations with Venezuela — including the recent mutual expulsion of each others’ ambassadors — a plurality of respondents to the poll said that they prefer strengthening diplomatic ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vociferous critic of U.S. policies.

Forty-six percent of those surveyed took this position, although the next largest bloc, just over a quarter of respondents, favoured cutting off Venezuelan imports.

Another recent issue in U.S. relations with Latin America has been a proposed free-trade agreement with Colombia. Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have called on the U.S. Congress to reject the treaty because of questionable connections between the Colombian government of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe and a pattern of anti-union violence.

The Zogby poll asked respondents whether the trade agreement should be ratified as is, with additional human rights conditions, or defeated. While more than a third of respondents said that they didn’t know enough about the issue to decide, a plurality of just over a quarter of respondents supported ratification with human rights conditions added. About 18 percent of respondents supported passing the agreement as is.

On a question about importing Brazilian ethanol, just under half of respondents favoured reducing the 54 cents per gallon U.S. tariff, and a quarter opposed the idea.

With rising energy prices, alternative fuels such as ethanol are in vogue. While the U.S. produces its own ethanol, it is made from corn in a much less efficient process than Brazilian production of sugar-based ethanol.