All Around the Neighborhood

A quick look at our amigos from Toronto to Tierra del Fuego

•Civil Strife Index *

Nearly twenty years of Pinochet left the country with little punch and even less organization.

•Life Expectancy 75 years

•Reefer Quality Index1/2

•Literacy Rate 96%

•Foreign Debt Index $98 billion

Chile currently stands alone among its Southern Cone neighbors as a solvent and reliable economy. The long-term outlook is good, foreign debt being the turtle in the race against the hare.

•Trade Power Index ****

•Poverty Rate 20%

•Corruption Index **

Two decades of brutal dictatorship gets you a mess of war crimes and a fairly efficient government bureaucracy.

Colombia

In Colombia they have a saying: "Es complicado pero no es complejo." Loosely translated: I have no idea what's going on here. This country probably has the world's strangest mix of war, politics, and economics. During some of the worst years of political violence, Colombia's GDP was higher than European stepchildren Chile and Argentina. Only recently has the war-equals-economic-growth model faltered. After years of export controls, coffee prices have bottomed out, largely owing to an increase in Vietnamese coffee exports. Free trade may only exacerbate the situation. And the promise of an oil boom is about as likely as peace. There's much less black gold than previously thought, and the rebels and paramilitary groups have taken their battles to the country's largest cities. What's left is an economy propped up on the wheels of its strongest crop, coca, and its most lucrative industry, kidnapping -- two subjects Colombian officials will be avoiding at the FTAA meeting even while they tout the benefits of free trade for the country so their fresh-flower and coal markets can continue to flourish.

•Civil Strife Index *****

One of the most popular men in the country, Carlos Castaño, has slaughtered hundreds of unarmed people. What more need be said?

•Life Expectancy 71 years

•Reefer Quality Index****

•Literacy Rate 92%

•Foreign Debt Index $58 billion

Outsiders tend to forget about the endless civil war when concentrating on coffee and cocaine, but the government certainly hasn't. Three years ago Colombia's foreign debt was 40 percent of its GDP, second only to Argentina. Today it's even worse.

•Trade Power Index **

•Poverty Rate 55%

•Corruption Index ****1/2

Civil war and powerful drug cartels have undermined and corrupted most aspects of Colombia's legitimate government.

Costa Rica

People unfamiliar with Costa Rica, roughly the size of West Virginia, often mistakenly lump it together with its poverty-stricken, strife-torn Central American neighbors. Nothing could be further from the truth, which is why it must be considered on its own. Costa Rica is an oasis of stability and peace in the region. The country has not fielded armed forces since 1949, when the army was abolished. Its system of national parks and biological preserves, which protect a vast array of exotic flora and fauna, has spawned an ecotourism industry that has become so popular (and profitable) that some fear it may soon overwhelm the fragile landscape. Costa Rica is the U.S.'s 38th largest export market, with $2.4 billion in goods entering the country annually. American trade negotiators are hoping their good business relationship with Costa Rica will provide credibility to the FTAA.

•Civil Strife Index *

Anybody up for a hike through the rain forest?

•Life Expectancy 76 years

•Reefer Quality Index**

•Literacy Rate 96%

•Foreign Debt Index $3 billion

Thanks to tourism, the economy here has remained on track, though overall GDP has dipped in recent years.

•Trade Power Index *

•Poverty Rate 22%

•Corruption Index ***

Costa Rica has less everyday corruption than its neighbors, but scandals over misused campaign funds have plagued the upper tiers of government in recent years. Wide-open immigration policies have allowed in some bad actors who will pay to play.

Cuba

Were it not for domestic political considerations (read: el exilio), U.S. business interests would prevail in allowing Cuba to participate in the FTAA. Doing so, of course, would mean ending the embargo, which the Bush administration won't consider -- at least not until after next year's presidential election. If itchy U.S. capitalists are patient, that may well occur, in which case a sizable market for U.S. goods and services will open wide. And in turn, Cuba's biomedical-research industry might have a chance to flourish, providing much-needed competition for rapacious U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

•Civil Strife Index *

A safe place to do business, but conflict looms when el barbudo croaks.

•Reefer Quality Index

Transshipment only.

•Literacy Rate 100% (if you believe Fidel)

•Foreign Debt Index $100 billion

Though major international lending institutions (and of course the U.S.) have kept their distance from Castro, that hasn't stopped the EU, other Latin American nations, and Russia from opening their pocketbooks, despite a very bad payback history.

•Trade Power Index **

•Poverty Rate 0% (if you believe Fidel)

•Corruption Index **1/2

It's difficult to monitor corruption in Castro's Cuba, but most accounts say he runs a tighter ship than many of his Caribbean neighbors.

Haiti

As the least-developed country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has nothing to lose and everything to gain from a free-trade pact. At its peak in the mid-Eighties, Haiti's assembly sector employed about 80,000 people and counted the U.S. as its biggest customer by far. Among other notable products, Haitian workers wrapped and stitched millions of baseballs, including those used by the major leagues. But as infrastructure devolved into roving packs of gunmen, foreign investment fled the island along with boatloads of natives. Even with the FTAA, companies are unlikely to reinvest until some measure of political stability returns -- and what will foster that is anyone's guess.

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