Bush’s Blast against Latin America’s “False Populism” May Be Getting It All Wrong

Politicians find it exceedingly difficult to explain free trade's virtues without drowning the listener in a torrent of common coinage. For a recent example of this, take President Bush's speech in Miami, designed to shore up flagging congressional support for pending free-trade agreements (FTAs) with Colombia and Panama. Echoing those all-too-familiar Bush bromides, he insisted that approving these FTAs would fortify "freedom," strengthen "democracy," and increase "prosperity" in Latin America.

Whether these present imperiled FTAs—particularly the one involving Colombia—are able to work the rainmaker miracle expected by their backers is certainly debatable. However, another argument that Bush is quick to unsheathe should be seen as a complete illusion: that "these [FTAs] will counter the false populism promoted by some nations in the hemisphere." Let's assume that by "some nations" he's referring to the "new left" leadership of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, among others. Their presidents have already made known, with varying degrees of frequency and virulence, their disdain for Bush's economic vision for Latin America. Nor is it only a coincidence that these leaders have all been elected or reelected during Washington's FTA crusade of recent years.

Look at Ecuador: during May of last year, the government of then-President Alfredo Palacio ejected U.S. oil company Occidental Petroleum Corp. (Oxy) for alleged contract violations. In retaliation, the U.S. government suspended FTA negotiations with Quito, which brought cheers from indigenous groups who saw the agreement as detrimental to their culture and quality of life. Oxy's induced departure made presidential hopeful Rafael Correa, who at the time trailed more moderate candidates, happy as well: harnessing the support of students, leftist intellectuals and indigenous peoples opposed to the FTA, the populist went on to ride a wave of nationalist and anti-U.S. sentiment all the way to the presidential palace.

Unlike Correa, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's President Evo Morales had no pending U.S. FTA to rally the people against; what they did have, like their Ecuadorian counterpart, was a bitter history of Washington meddling in their affairs and a gross income disparity, aggravated in the 1980s and 90s by wealth-concentrating neoliberal policies. Responding to popular discontent over the results of these policies, both reformers won their elections by campaigning for extensive state intervention in the economy—antithetical to the spirit of economic liberalization that neoliberals and White House sages aggressively promote and that FTAs, at least theoretically, incorporate. Both South American leaders have delivered on promises made to their core constituencies, especially where the sale of natural resources is concerned: Bolivia's Morales expropriated the country's gas industry only five months after being elected, and Chávez forced foreign oil companies to sell off majority stakes in their Orinoco Basin fields last summer to the Venezuelan state oil company, causing Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips to pull out.

Instead of effectively countering what Washington insists in describing as a "false populism," U.S.-backed FTAs—coupled with the unflattering legacy of Washington's continued endorsement of a rich man's Latin America—might inadvertently have been encouraging it, by promoting policies that augment rather than diminish the social unrest off of which populists feed. These populists, in turn, can jeopardize the wellbeing of U.S. economic interests in the region, as Chávez has done, by tarnishing Washington's regional motives and the sincerity of its concerns. This backlash may also come to negate some of the gains in market access that FTAs provide.

So how can Bush say that FTAs with Peru, Colombia and Panama would stem the tide of leftist "false populism" sweeping South America? If he really believed this assertion, he would end the Cuba trade embargo, which could certainly strike a sharper blow against anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America than any FTA could.

It's easy to pretend that casting bilateral FTAs upon the region will heal all of Washington's political woes and fulfill Latin America's economic yearnings. It's much harder, however, to engage in constructive and painstaking diplomacy, which is probably the only effective prescription against the "false populism" that seems to so alarm President Bush.

4 thoughts on “Bush’s Blast against Latin America’s “False Populism” May Be Getting It All Wrong

  • November 15, 2007 at 12:17 pm
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    Free Trade Agreements by most Latin America countries seem to favor the U.S. while imposing conditions detrimental to countries trying to export their products into the U.S. markets.

    I live in Panama and I do not support the FTA with the U.S. since it will hurt our farmers making us more dependent on U.S. goods. A country that cannot support itself is a country dependent on others. A sign of weakness. I favor our own production to supply most of our goods.

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  • November 16, 2007 at 4:24 am
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    Instead of the US government wasting their time and money trying to destabilize and sabotage democratically elected governments in South America which results in nothing but bad will, the United States may be wise to let these countries become socially and economically strong, as the whole of Latin America is a natural consumer of US exports the job sector can only benefit so much in both sides of the continent this I think is what means to be progressive, to do fair business for mutual benefit.

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  • November 18, 2007 at 10:58 am
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    Interesting, but I dislike the all-too-frequent use of the term ‘populist’ when referring to LatAm leaders, as it seems to suggest they don’t somehow deserve their support, or are simply delivering policies to appeal to the short term demands of their electorates. ‘Popular’ would be more appropriate, and would also cast Bush into a more accurate light..

    These deals will never help LatAm, they will just sell US products and slave labour production to these countries. In Venezuela, a country with just about every agricultural climate available, the shops are full of massively over-priced imported foods. This is why these countries need reform, they have never had the chance to protect their internal markets from outside forces long enough for them to develop. I now live in the UK and my local supermarket is about 35% cheaper than in Venezuela, factor in minimum wages calculations and it’s about 1000%.

    ‘Free Trade’, which the west does not practice itself, has gifted this situation to the poor and the hungry of the south. The people, politically divided, are now waking up and informing themselves across all these countries. The debates are vitriolic but at a much higher level than usually found in mainstream western press.

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