The President’s Latin American Journey: A Matter of Low Expectations and Utter Despair

At a time when his popularity has hit rock bottom at home, President Bush is slipping out of Washington today to visit five Latin American nations in the course of an six-day trip. Bush’s itinerary will take him first to Brazil, then south to Uruguay before heading north again for stops in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. The president plans to briefly address, (in some instances, for the first time in his administration) a number of regional issues, which have taken a back seat since his first inauguration in 2001. These include a wide range of under-discussed—or previously completely ignored—topics associated with Washington’s professed “commitment” to the region, which, in fact, have never been honored.

Below, in list format, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has outlined some of the more important topics, issues, themes and possible outcomes of the Bush-Latin America visit. If further information or analysis is desired, please feel free to contact our offices at (202)223-4975 or coha@coha.org

– Why is Bush taking this trip? And why now?:

The President is taking the trip at this juncture for a number of pressing, if not particularly strategic reasons. For starters, with his public approval rating dancing just above thirty percent and the political climate on capital hill becoming increasingly more chilly to his administration, Bush could—conceivably—naively view his southern visit as a diversion from White House pressures being generated by the Iraq war. Regardless of Bush’s preconceived notion of how he will be received in Latin America, and his awesome capacity for denial, the demonstrably, poorly-informed president will undoubtedly be shocked by the angry anti-Bush demonstrations likely to occur in some of countries which he will be visiting. Bush and his White House handlers have become painfully aware that he is running out of time for substantive initiatives in Latin America to be conjured up, sent to Congress and then implemented. There may be just too much of a handicap to engage in much heavy lifting in order to rehabilitate his administration’s flawed reputation when it comes to inter-American affairs. This trip is a reflection of a frantic attempt to save a foundering Latin American foreign policy and the subsequent reputation which history may not treat all that kindly.

To make one final attempt to create a positive legacy and promote thoughtful foreign policy initiatives in the region, seeing that his administration’s previous endeavors have either misfired or have been so disastrous as to provoke the growth of widespread negative criticism, the trip was planned with the realization that it might be risk free.

Bush hopes to sign trade agreements and other economic measures before his window of opportunity for fast track policy expires on June 30, when the trade decision-making authority will then revert to Congress. The president will have to move rapidly because the Democratic-led Congress is well-known for being far more anti-Free Trade than the Republicans.

– Bush’s Latin American policy has been little more than a function of the distraction posed by Iraq; the unpopularity in Latin America of the Iraq war (85% oppose it) and Bush’s personal unpopularity (almost 85% oppose him). These polls are indicative of the bitter fruits of the massive neglect of Latin America by the current administration and the inadequacies of Bush’s personnel that were appointed to deal with the region. The hole that the administration would have to fill is far too deep for Bush to do anything else but glad-hand the region’s leaders for the next few days and then lower his head. There is simply no prospect that this trip will pay off, politically speaking.

– The general distaste for the Bush administration within Latin America is now a profound fact of life. The punishingly bad publicity resulting from the gaffs and unseemly behavior by the president’s first two political appointees as heads of the State Department’s Latin America bureau, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, who easily spent as much effort coming forth with failed initiatives to isolate Cuba as they did in generating responsive policies to deal with all of the grave problems in the rest of Latin America, was the kind of new math that could only fail its students.

– Aside from hostile relations with Cuba and Venezuela, the other issue of preeminent concern when it comes to the region, is trade and the promotion of free market reforms. But rather than go about promoting these policies by presenting Washington’s case in an entirely professional manner, the White House made assent to them the pre-condition to have good relations with the U.S.

– Aside from giving them only lip-service at the time, Washington all but ignored anti-poverty issues, as well as basic questions concerning economic and social justice, which are reflected in the fact that Latin America has the most skewed figures of wealth concentration of any region in the world.

– The bulk of the Bush legacy projects an image throughout Latin America of an unbridled thug and corner bully:

During the administrations of Reich and Noriega, US ambassadors were instructed to threaten Latin America leaders into cooperating with the U.S. on Iraq and to become a member of the coalition of the willing, or they would face a possible cut-off of aid and trade. Similarly, U.S. ambassadors emphasized to the political class in countries in the region that even if the victorious candidates were elected in a free and fair election, if the winner was considered to be anti-U.S, there would be adverse consequences.

– As a result of the onset of Iraq, and the subsequent decline of U.S. interest in the area, as well as due to the launching of a worldwide quest by Latin America for badly needed foreign investments, nations in the region went out on their own, courting an array of non-traditional partners. Using this period of benign and sometimes malign neglect to break out of the ghetto into which they had been thrust by U.S. policy, they self-globalized the orientation of their policy, pluralizing their relations with non-traditional partners like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. They entered into a variety of pacts, credit arrangements, bilateral trade agreements, and cultural exchanges, security investment as well as entering into cooperation initiatives. Rather than automatically deride various Latin American initiatives, Washington would do well to investigate their strengths and weaknesses and not immediately assume that they were useless banalities.

– The development challenge presented by Chávez:

The U.S. response to Caracas’ effort to aggressively market its vision along with its willingness to help its neighboring economies on a major scale, has been to allocate a relatively meager aid budget to the region, which pales in comparison to what Venezuela is offering, and which will be earmarked to a score of regional nations.

– With the Bush trip, the United States is limping back to the hemisphere after it apparently decided to duke it out with a core group of left-leaning nations. The U.S. is now belatedly mobilizing for a so-called major diplomatic campaign in Latin America, that it is more directed by speech writers than by any deep-seated vision within the State Department. If anything, Washington’s attention to Latin America is far too little and far too late and is doomed to failure due to its paucity of new ideas.

– The recent decision by the U.S. to tolerate Columbia’s breach of its extradition understanding with Washington, together with the recent scandals affecting President Uribe and his government’s connection with the rightwing paramilitary group, the AUC, not only undermines the U.S. war against drugs, but it is likely to doom the entire campaign. Bogotá is the third highest recipient of U.S. aid (after Israel and Egypt) and is scheduled to receive an additional $750 million in the coming fiscal year under Plan Colombia II. This volume of aid is already far more than President Bush has pledged to all of the remaining Latin American countries combined, including the amount he will commit in the course of the current trip. It is more than likely that a Democratic-led Congress will severely shrink the amount of such aid.

– The current U.S. position on Latin America is unlikely to succeed at undermining Chvez because the Venezuelan president’s very popularity is conditioned on the U.S.’s continued refusal to accept Venezuela’s right to go its own way. Venezuela has become an authority on self-help development in Latin America and the U.S. will likely have insurmountable difficulty in trying to catch up with Caracas in order to earn Latin America’s good will. Washington is continuously maintaining that Caracas is trying to buy Latin America’s loyalty but doesn’t acknowledge that it is trying to do the same thing, which is what its USAID program has always been about, for decades in the many billions of dollars.

– The U.S. is now about to instigate an urgent effort to provide credit lines and job-creation programs to Latin America in order to promote a favorable image of this country in the region. This is part of its effort to play catch-up with the rest of the hemisphere. Though this policy appears more promising than what we now have, it could prove to be a prime example of too little too late.

– Realistically, the U.S. will have to allow for the possible return of mixed economics to Latin America which the U.S. previously worked to expunge, rather than the regimen of privatization and market accessibility upon which Washington historically has insisted.

– It is difficult to see a truly substantive agreement over ethanol being reached between Brazil and the U.S. because the White House is clearly not ready to give up agricultural subsides to its own farmers, which is the bedrock of Brasilia’s opposition to the FTAA.

– Washington fears that the real danger posed by Chavez is that his governing model—a largely socialist economy set in a habitat of a constitutional democracy—presents a viable alternative development plan to the rest of Latin America in its efforts to achieve the region’s own custom-tailored paths. This feared scenario would be an anathema for the U.S.’s free enterprise convictions.

– The possible basis of a swap to return Guantanamo to Cuban Control: If Venezuela gives up its arms race, then the U.S. would be open to returning Guantanamo.

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