U.S. aid to Chile unlikely to boost U.S. image in Latin America

U.S. aid to Chile unlikely to boost U.S. image in Latin America
By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON _ The U.S. aid that poured into Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami paid handsome dividends for its donor, polishing America’s image and leading some government officials to view disaster relief as a pillar of public diplomacy in a wary world.

But as the United States gears up to help earthquake-ravaged Chile, it appears any public relations benefit of the effort will be more modest.

Latin American diplomats and private experts say that while Chileans will respond with gratitude, the larger region’s strained ties with the Obama administration are unlikely to improve.

“It will help marginally, and temporarily,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that focuses on Latin America. “It’s not going to solve the problems just now between the United States and the region.”

The region “expects a certain amount of aid from the United States and the wealthy countries,” said one diplomat from a generally pro-American country, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People are grateful. But will it change their foreign policy? No.”

The tens of millions of dollars in aid poured by U.S. officials into Haiti since its devastating earthquake Jan. 12 has been a plus for the United States, Shifter said.

Yet, the region’s complicated feelings about the United States have also been clear. Some Latin American officials, as well as some Haitian leaders, complained about the “militarization” of the U.S. aid effort, he said.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denounced the Pentagon’s Haitian presence as an “invasion,” as commentators on social networking Web sites echoed some of the same feelings.

“This is a region that has been, and remains, very sensitive about the activities of the U.S. military,” Shifter said.
The Obama administration began its term amid warm feelings and high expectations from Latin America, sentiments that were apparent when Obama traveled to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last spring.
But in the intervening year, many governments in the region have begun to feel that the new team has not lived up to its promise.

Initiatives outlined by Obama, such as a joint energy effort, have made little progress. Many Latin American leaders were frustrated by the protracted American effort to resolve a coup in Honduras, which ended with the election of a right-leaning president that many countries have only gradually accepted.

And those who expected that Obama would finally end the economic embargo on Cuba have been disappointed to see him move cautiously, waiting _ just like his predecessor _ until the Cubans first undertake political reforms.

“There has been disappointment,” said Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a specialist on Latin America at the Cato Institute in Washington. “People were waiting for Obama to live up to expectations that I don’t think were ever realistic. But that was their attitude.”

Chileans who benefit from the administration’s aid may feel better about the U.S. “Elsewhere, I don’t think much will change,” Hidalgo said.

U.S. disaster relief efforts have brought dramatic improvements in U.S. standing elsewhere. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the share of Indonesians with positive views of the United States rose into the 30 percent ranges, up from about 20 percent, said Andrew Kohut, president of Pew Research Center.

“And this held for a number of years,” said Kohut, whose organization conducts the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a worldwide survey.

U.S. aid to Pakistan after a 2005 earthquake raised pro-American sentiment there by at least 5 percent, he said. “This is pretty remarkable for a country where there’s such strong anti-Americanism,” Kohut said.
While many Chileans resented U.S. backing for Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who ruled the country from 1973 to 1990, ties with Chile have been among the strongest in the region for the United States recently.
It remains unclear whether the level of U.S. aid to Chile will come anywhere near what was provided for Haiti or Indonesia.

Impoverished Haiti asked for a wholesale rebuilding program. But more prosperous Chile by Tuesday had requested only limited aid, including 20 satellite phones, a portable hospital and a water-purification system.
A State Department official involved in the Chilean aid effort said that the public relations boost “is of course not what we’re after. But if there is that kind of benefit, it’s an extra plus.”