Why Bush is in Latin America

published: Sunday | March 11, 2007
After thrusting Latin America on the back burner in 2001 following raised hopes that the region would form a major plank of his foreign policy, President George Bush is now on a five-nation tour of the region amid scepticism.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a leading think tank on Latin America based in Washington, put out an article on the day the President left the capital, titled ‘The President’s Latin American Journey: A Matter of Low Expectations and Utter Despair’. On February 12, the Los Angeles Times, in commenting on the upcoming Bush trip, ran an article titled ‘Latin America Wary of New U.S. Attention’ with the sub-title, ‘The diplomatic drive is seen as an effort to counter the influence of Venezuela’s Chavez’.


The paper quotes Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, as saying, “There is a concern that if Iran, through Chavez, is making a presence in the U.S. backyard, then that needs to be dealt with.” The Iranian President was in the region ahead of Bush in January, kissing babies while in Nicaragua for the inauguration of leftist president Daniel Ortega, celebrated enemy of the late Republican icon Ronald Reagan.

Bush is anything but popular in Latin America. Polls show that 85 per cent of Latin Americans oppose his war in Iraq and approximately the same percentage oppose him personally. Says the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in its March 8 article on the President’s trip: “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 appointed to deal with the region.

“The hole that the administration would have to fill is 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 the trip will pay off, politically speaking. The general distaste for the Bush administration within Latin America is now a profound fact of life.”

But perhaps the council should be a little more cautious. Foreign policy blunders are not always irredeemable. International politics is comparable to a game. You might lose this round but there is always hope for winning the next one. It is clear that the Bush administration is making some important and corrective course action in foreign policy, having been humbled by its foreign policy failures, particularly its debacle in Iraq.

But we should not be disingenuous to the Bush administration and not make the point that it could have stubbornly refused to acknowledge reality while arrogantly clinging to its delusions.

The Brookings Institution scholar, Philip Gordon, refers to ‘The End of the Bush Revolution’ in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, and Time magazine titled its February 12 cover story ‘Back to Reality: Why Iraq and Iran are Forcing Condoleezza Rice to Rethink U.S. Foreign Policy and Deal with the World as it is’. The administration is demonstrating some wisdom and common sense in backing away from certain hardline and myopic positions, and no aversion to the Bush administration should make us fail to acknowledge that.

In the last few days the U.S. made important concessions on the issue of North Korea, and has brokered a deal through the Six-Party talks, while initiatives are afoot to bring in Iran and Syria in the loop for arriving at a solution to the Iraq civil war. Bush has been showing greater respect for the United Nations and for multilateralism, and has decidedly tempered his unilateralist rhetoric and superpower bravado. This trip to Latin America shows a Bush who is increasingly turning to diplomacy and negotiation rather than the purely muscular foreign policy which characterised the post-9/11 era.

Bush gave an important speech at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Centre on Monday where he outlined some key elements of his Western Hemisphere policy.

In terms of political strategy and effective positioning of a message, the speech was first-rate. In terms of tone, it was perfect. Bush in this speech basically took the wind out of the sail of the Latin American left, brilliantly adopted their own platform without the excess and absolutely disarmed the critics by the things which he conceded. The speech displayed an understanding of Latin American realities which was profound and gripping. Dismiss it as pure strategy and gamesmanship – an attempt to trick people and an example of U.S. hypocrisy, if you like. But you have to admit he said the right words and struck the right chords on the eve of his departure to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

Riding the rhetorical wave of the Latin American left, President Bush said “the working poor of Latin America need change. In too many places in the Americas, a government official is seen as someone who serves himself at the expense of the public good or serves only the rich and the well-connected. No free society can function this way.” This is George Bush, Republican, I am quoting. (Whoever wrote this speech should get a pay raise. But Bush must be credited for accepting it.)

Latin America is the most unequal region in the world. The region is notorious for its inequities and injustices and for its unbalanced capitalist development which has left many of its people in poverty and degradation. Bush went on to say that “social justice requires economies that make it possible for workers to provide for their families and to rise in society. For too long and in too many places opportunity in Latin America has been determined by the accident of birth rather than by application of talents and initiative … Latin America needs capitalism for the campesino, a true capitalism that allows people to start from nothing to rise as far as their skills and their hard work can take them”. Latin America’s rigid class and ethnic structures which militate against upward mobility and grassroots development has been the subject of treatises from the region’s finest economists and political scientists. Bush has now joined the chorus against this.

Sounding like the critics of neo-liberalism who point out that the poor have been left out of capitalist development in Latin America, Bush noted that “one in four people in Latin America lives on less than $2 a day. Many children never finish grade school. In an age of growing prosperity and abundance, this is a scandal.” He is out-Chavezing Chavez. He even quoted Simon Bolivar, Chavez’s hero, comparing him to George Washington and saying, “we are sons and daughters of this struggle and it is our mission to complete the revolution they began on our two continents.”)

Increased marginalisation, injustice and any consequent revolt of the masses on America’s doorsteps is not in the interest of the United States. As the President said, “It is in our national interests, it is in the interest of the United States of America to help the people in democracies in our neighbourhood succeed. When our neighbours are prosperous and peaceful, it means better opportunities and more security for our own people. … Socialjustice means meeting basic human needs”.

American foreign policy has always been based on that pragmatic view. That is why the Open Door Policy (which Christopher Layne so admirably covers in his book, The Peace Of Illusions: American Grand Strategy From 1940 to the Present) is so important to American grand strategy.

Forty-six years ago this very month President John F. Kennedy, in the heat of the Cold War, launched his Alliance for Progress strategy for Latin American development, recognising that if rival ideologies were to be defeated in the region, poverty had to be defeated first.

Today with Hugo Chavez on the ascendancy in the region and using his enormous oil wealth to engender support from the region’s governments, it is important that the U.S. President plants some carrots in his backyard. The President has announced a whole host of initiatives in health, education, small business development and development assistance-just the kinds of things which Chavez has been doling out. He also announced a debt relief plan which would see the cancellation of some US$3.4 billion of debt to the poorest nations in the region, including Guyana, Haiti and even Bolivia, which under Morales has gone left.

Perhaps the U.S. will listen to moderate voices in foreign policy in the US. In a paper put out last year by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations and titled Bolivia on the Brink, Professor Eduardo Gamarra, Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Centre advises that “de-linking U.S. policy toward Bolivia from Morales’ relationships with Cuba and Venezuela can do more in the long run to achieve political stability the Bush administration must maintain a diplomatic tone that minimises the ideological differences between the Morales government and Washington and focuses on trade economic stability development and poverty alleviation …”.

Analysts see Bush’s courting of President Lula of Brazil as a “moderate leftist” to be a buffer against “radical leftists” like Chavez, Ortega and Morales. But the respected New Left Review had a damning article on Lula and his drift toward neo-liberalism in its November-December, 2006, issue titled “Lula in the Labyrinth.” The article refers to Brazil’s “dizzying inequality, constant bombardment of neo-liberal privatisation, deregulation, attacks on rights … and intensification of barbarism now escalating into political criminality”.

Bush might not be able to regain his credibility in Latin America, but he is putting his best foot forward and certainly not making things worse with his recent pronouncements and initiatives.

n Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at ianboyne1@yahoo.com.