Latin America Softly Rebuffs Bush

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The Summit of the Americas wasn't a total loss. Yes, the group of 34 nations didn't agree on a trading pact, a vision of Bush's Free Trade Agreement of the America. But they did agree to keep working, and that was a defeat for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who vowed to bury the FTAA at this meeting.

Bush and Chavez never spoke to one another. Chavez owned the streets, delivering an anti-American harangue to a rally of 25,000, but he never owned the Summit itself. Even the nations that oppose the FTAA in its present form—the Mercosur trading bloc which includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay—made it clear that they weren't opposed to some kind of agreement.

Still, this was hardly the kind of visit Bush had imagined when he was elected President. As a former governor of Texas who spoke Spanish, Latin America was supposed to be his forte. But 9/11 kept the President's focus off the area, and the Iraq war never drew significant support from the leaders of Latin Americaís young democracies. And so, the President who might have been a big hit in the region has paid a price.

White House officials are willing to take the heat here—as they are at home—for an Iraq mission they believe is both noble and achievable. And the President retains surprisingly good relations with some of the region's new left-leaning governments, like Brazil, whose new president, Lula da Silva, met with Bush on Sunday. The administration likes Brazil's continuing commitment to market reforms and a stable investment climate.

White House officials are, not surprisingly, downplaying the outcome of the Summit. They are instead encouraging the idea that the talking itself was a victory of sorts. Aboard Air Force One, National Security Adviser Steven Hadley told reporters that "It's not deadlocked." He added, "We went from a summit which was supposed to bury FTAA to a summit ... in which all 34 countries actually talk in terms of enhanced trade and an FTAA." That's putting a rosy tint on it, but for the administration it will have to do.