Why Latin America Bashes Bush

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A demonstration against Bush's visit in Mar del Plata, Argentina

President George W. Bush shouldn't have been too surprised by the angry—and ultimately violent—welcome he received Friday at the 4th Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina. After pledging during his 2000 election campaign to correct Washington's indifference to Latin America, the President is viewed as having all but turned his back on the region after most Latin American capitals declined to back his invasion of Iraq. But Bush's hemispheric cold shoulder has backfired: It created a political vacuum that has been largely filled by neo-leftists like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was expected to join tens of thousands of raucous demonstrators Friday marching through Mar del Plata to denounce Bush and his all-but-doomed efforts to forge a hemispheric free trade pact.

Far from being the mejor amigo he promised to be, Bush today is arguably more unpopular in Latin America than any U.S. president in history. In Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, a recent poll showed 64% have a poor or very poor opinion of him. Elsewhere in the region, Bush's approval rating usually falls below 25%. Part of the problem is broad opposition to the Iraq war; another is the perception that Bush is a Monroe Doctrine throwback to heavy-handed U.S. interventionism in the region. That image caught fire after the Bush Administration was widely accused of backing a failed coup against Chavez in 2002 (a charge the White House denies). Fuel was added last summer when conservative televangelist Pat Robertson—a high-profile supporter of President Bush — publicly called for Chavez's assassination. (Robertson has since apologized.) Chavez is a democratically elected president, but his close friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro, his own flirtations with autocratic government and his recently declared interest in acquiring nuclear technology have Washington bristling. As a result, the fiery Chavez and his growing number of supporters around the region remain vocally convinced that Bush is out to kill him.

But Bush's biggest south-of-the-border PR problem is economic. Even before the start of the November 4-5 Summit, devoted to combating poverty and creating jobs, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and other Latin nations banded together to nudge Washington's Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) proposal off the agenda. The move, which has angered the Bush Administration, reflects growing skepticism in Latin America over the virtues of free-market reforms, which many believe have simply widened the chasm between rich and poor in a region that already displays the world's worst disparities in wealth.

Besides promoting market reforms, the White House also sees the FTAA as a shield against the growing encroachment of China and the European Union into Latin America. Chavez has made no secret of his desire to undercut U.S. hegemony in the region by forging a new Latin American economic and political integration. Oil may be his chosen weapon to achieve that goal: Venezuela, which holds the hemisphere's largest oil reserves and which supplies almost 15% of the U.S. needs, is forming regional energy partnerships that offer cash- and fuel-strapped neighbors cheaper access to Venezuelan oil. And he and other Latin governments are ratcheting up trade with non-traditional partners like China, whose exploding appetite for raw materials has boosted its total trade with Latin America from $8 billion in 1999 to more than $30 billion this year. That includes increased oil imports from Venezuela, which has caused Washington to fret about a long-term shortfall in its own crude imports from one of its nearest and most reliable suppliers.

Still, the U.S. remains by a long way Latin America's most important trading partner, a relationship worth over $400 billion a year. So, despite the North-South acrimony at the 34-nation Summit (communist Cuba is excluded), both sides have reason to seek common ground.

The reality for Washington is that the region's neo-leftist revival extends far beyond the bluster of Chavez: At least eight Latin American nations either have recently elected left-wing heads of state (including the region's largest economy, Brazil) or have leftists leading in the polls for upcoming presidential elections (including Mexico and Bolivia). Failure to engage the region's new politics will not only have economic consequences; it could also imperil other key U.S. goals in the hemisphere such as the war on drugs, immigration reform and the consolidation of democracy.

For the resurgent governing Left in Latin America, however, the reality is that the summit's goal of eliminating poverty by creating jobs can't be achieved without a certain level of economic globalization, especially in the form of prodigious U.S. investment. Before the gap between Latin America's rich and poor can be narrowed, the gap between Washington and Latin America has to be bridged as well.