Bush and Chavez on rival tours in bid to win Latin American hearts and minds

Friday, March 09, 2007

By Jude Webber and Andrew Buncombe

As George Bush arrives in Uruguay tonight as part of a five-nation Latin America tour, his verbal sparring partner, Hugo Chavez, is scheduled to hold a rally 30 miles away across the River Plate in Argentina. The George and Hugo show is poised to start again.

It is unlikely that either will have anything particularly pleasant to say about the other. Despite their symbiotic relationship based on fossil fuel – Venezuela is the fourth largest supplier of oil to the US – Mr Bush and Mr Chavez are engaged in a battle for influence in Latin America. For once it is the US that is running second, with a predominance of countries in the region headed by left-wing leaders.

For decades Washington wielded influence through bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and through direct or indirect military intervention when it saw fit. But in recent years the power of the IMF in the region has waned. In that vacuum, Mr Chavez, bolstered by soaring oil incomes, has stepped in and offered countries an alternative source of funding and credit.

Mr Bush’s trip, which started in Brazil and which, in addition to Uruguay, will include stops in Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, is part of an effort to wrest back some degree of initiative in a region the US has long considered its backyard, but where its actions have often had deadly consequences.

As The Washington Post noted, the trip also gives Mr Bush some welcome respite from the domestic political turmoil back home. In a direct challenge to his authority, Democrats in the House of Representatives unveiled legislation yesterday that will require the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq by late 2008. Congress has also been holding hearings into the mistreatment of wounded soldiers and the dismissals of several prosecutors.

A federal jury has also just convicted the former White House aide Lewis Libby of perjury and obstruction of justice in a case linked to US justification for the Iraq invasion.

“I think Bush is going partly to show that he has not forgotten Latin America,” said Mark Weisbrot, director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research. “It’s to show he still has allies in countries such as Mexico and Guatemala and that he has allies within governments and inside business.”

Mr Weisbrot said that while Mr Chavez and Mr Bush may consider each other rivals, he did not believe their battle could be seen in Cold War terms. Unlike the loans of the IMF, he said, Venezuela’s loans to countries in the region did not come with policy attachments. “He believes in developing economic integration and gaining more independence from Washington, but Chavez has not sought to influence other countries’ policies,” he said.

Indeed, aside from any baiting of Mr Bush that he may indulge in, the Venezuelan leader’s visit to Argentina is focused on signing commercial agreements and helping out a troubled dairy cooperative there. Venezuela has bought billions of dollars in Argentine debt and supplies the country with fuel, while Argentina is developing agricultural links with Caracas. The countries have issued a joint bond, and Buenos Aires is backing Venezuelan-led projects for a region-wide bank and gas pipeline.

An Argentine political consultant, Carlos Germano, said: “Venezuela’s relations with Argentina are definitely more economic than political. Today, Argentina is light years from Hugo Chavez’s political project. It’s a relationship based on economic interests.”

That is not to say Argentina has been lured by US overtures to try to isolate Venezuela politically. Last week, the Argentine President, Nestor Kirchner, speaking in Caracas, rejected the notion that Argentina or Brazil should “contain President Chavez”, whom he called a “brother and a friend”. Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, wrote in a recent briefing paper: “The Bush administration is being made aware that its leverage in Latin America is rapidly dissipating. Even well-meaning kinsmen in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, let alone its Central American banana republics, don’t always salivate when the bell is rung.”

Before he left the US for his first stop in Brazil, where he is expected to sign an agreement with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to turn ethanol into an internationally traded commodity, Mr Bush said he was interested in acting to counter poverty in the region. He told CNN En Espanol: “The trip is to remind people that we care. I do worry about the fact that some say, ‘Well, the United States hasn’t paid enough attention to us’ or ‘The United States really isn’t anything more than worried about terrorism’. And when, in fact, the record has been a strong record.”

Critics of the US may tremble at such words. Washington has a long history of bloody intervention in the region, from Guatemala to Chile and Nicaragua, to oust democratic governments it has not approved of. More recently, funds provided by the US Congress were directed to opponents of Mr Chavez who launched a short-lived coup in 2002. Such a record may partly account for Mr Chavez’s often fiery denunciations of Mr Bush, whom he last year called “the devil” during a speech at the UN.

In search of friends and favours: the Bush itinerary

Brazil

The first stop on George Bush’s tour and one of the few countries whose government enjoys equally good relations with the White House and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Brazil’s President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is looking to balance trade links with Venezuela, while encouraging Washington to ease tariffs stopping Brazilian goods reaching US markets.

Colombia

The US’s most staunch ally in the region and the recipient of an overwhelming portion of its aid budget. Colombia’s President, Alvaro Uribe, has a tense relationship with Mr Chavez, whom he accuses of backing left-wing guerrillas.

Mexico

Mr Bush is set for a tense visit to Mexico City as US efforts to secure its southern border have done little to help a right-wing government elected by a handful of votes. Mr Chavez’s loud backing for the losing presidential candidate, Lopez Obrador, means he is viewed with hostility by the administration.

Guatemala

Described by Venezuela as a proxy for the US after a vicious battle between the two for a seat on the UN Security Council, Guatemala is among Mr Bush’s strongest regional allies. Its government, drawn from the agricultural and banking elite, is accused of grave human rights abuses.

Uruguay

Mr Bush’s arrival in Montevideo will be marked by rallies in neighbouring Argentina led by Mr Chavez. Uruguay’s left-leaning moderate government is exactly the kind of administration the US must win over. Otherwise Uruguay will move closer to Mr Chavez’s regional bloc.