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If appearances are not deceiving, Mexican President Vicente Fox's dogmatic pursuit of respectability and prosperity in Latin America is slowly blossoming. This while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may have never heard the old adage of letting sleeping dogs lie.

Fox continues to stand tall, with much resurgence apparently manifesting from the recent Summit of the Americas in Argentina, and the dog and pony show with violent protesters orchestrated by Chavez.

The verbal exchange between the two presidents in the aftermath of the summit set the stage, and demonstrated the contrast, for a comparison between good and evil. More than a hemispheric split in opinion, Chavez called Fox a ''puppy of the [U.S.] empire.'' This as Fox had criticized Chavez's attempts to win his anti-free trade agenda and sour the attending nation's consideration of the initiatives.

Fox announced that 29 countries supported the continuation of negotiations toward free trade, and boldly suggested that an agreement be made without five opposing countries. And Chavez reacted, not diplomatically but rather as a leftist bully attempting to humiliate anyone who opposed him.

Fox subsequently demanded an apology, and an explanation from Chavez for the disrespect demonstrated to his nation which he did not get. This prompted both Mexico and Venezuela to recall their respective ambassadors.

Fox wasted no time with this snub by Chavez, as Mexico continued forward toward an agreement with Chile. This ''strategic association accord'' is to be signed in January, and it is described as an effort to bring Chile and Mexico closer together politically, culturally, and technically. Both nations are staunch supporters of free trade, and Fox proudly remarked that the deal is centered on care for the citizens of each country, plus it is a bridge ''between all actors of both nations.''

During and after the Summit several Latin American presidents complained that their voices had been virtually censored. Some even complained of being unable to invite journalists to their hotels for interviews, while Chavez and Argentina's soccer legend Diego Maradona paraded protesters prone to violence through the streets of Mar del Plata, burning U.S. flags and insulting President George W. Bush and the United States.

Their antics, as well as Fox's proactive posture in the face of adversity, could also be related to progress last week in Nicaragua where President Enrique Bolanos forged a ''regional customs union'' with his counterparts from Honduras and Panama. As well, Bolanos said that once the Central American Free Trade Agreement becomes law next year, ''we can make progress in negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union.''

The CAFTA alliance has been signed by Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, although the Costa Rican legislature has yet to ratify the accord.

With the exception of Mexico, the United States could survive without markets in Latin America, which account for less than 6 percent of U.S. trade with the world. U.S. refiners can also purchase oil from countries other than Venezuela, which supplies around 7 percent of U.S. consumption.

Latin America remains vulnerable to false gods bearing gifts. Despite poverty rates that average near 50 percent, there has been little pressure for these countries to reform. Foreign assistance and loans make it easy to get by without change. However, there are no shortages of governments such as China and others that are willing to trade and deal with corrupt governments that maintain control over various markets.

This while Chavez spreads petroleum profits around Latin America to advance his cause, and aids terrorist groups such as Colombia's guerillas.

Chile has become a first-world leader in trade and market liberalization in Latin America. With the exception of Cuba and Haiti, all Latin American countries hold competitive elections and have adopted market-oriented reforms. Mexico has had strong economic growth over the past several years, along with a significant impact along the U.S. border. President Fox highlights these issues in his discussions on migration, while making economic growth part of the larger picture.

There is no doubt that a sustained U.S. commitment is essential to Latin America's stability and continued democratic development. However the United States must act with more strategy than by tactical response, and the strategies must include promoting stability through democratic governance, strengthening police and military capabilities, and help to open economies through the rule of law and the establishment of pro-business policies.


Jerry Brewer is a columnist for