March 15, 2007
Perhaps the most notable thing about President Bush's visit to Latin America is that relatively few notable events took place. You have to give credit to the trip planners, who successfully coordinated extensive security measures in each of the five countries he visited. There were a few predictable anti-U.S. demonstrations, including some vicious caricatures comparing Bush to Hitler, but that is pretty much par for the course. It's been that way ever since Vice President Richard Nixon was the target of a tomato barrage in Lima, Peru in 1958. There were also predictable chidings of Bush by Latin leaders, but otherwise pretty much everything went smoothly. This stood in contrast to the riotous Summit of the Americas [held in] Mar del Plata, Argentina, which Bush attended in November 2005.
The summary analysis by Peter Baker in the Washington Post took note of President Bush's intensive gestures to reach out to average people in Latin America, trying to counteract the appeal of Hugo Chavez. With less than two years to go before his term ends, it was probably one of the last big chances for Bush to do some real "campaigning." Bush pushed his themes of social justice and "compassion" like there was no tomorrow, and it really was impressive. Baker is probably correct to write that "Bush had more symbolism than substance to offer," but that is one of the collateral effects of having invested such a big share of U.S. resources to the War on Terror. Bush seems to be making up for lack of hard cash and time with sharp, up-close focus.
In Brazil, the big announcement was the ethanol trade agreement. This had been anticipated (see Feb. 8), and in a sense it embodies some of the fundamental contradictions in U.S. foreign policy, especially as has been practiced under the Bush administration. The geopolitical objective of courting allies in the region to curtail the influence of Hugo Chavez was obvious to all. As explained in the Washington Post, Bush's attempt to link ethanol to environmental goals is questionable:
The emphasis on ethanol has also drawn criticism from environmentalists and others who complain that it will create more problems. Because the United States makes ethanol from corn, it has already caused price increases, for example, for tortillas in Mexico. Brazil makes ethanol from sugar cane, and critics say increased production would result in further deforestation of the Amazon.
From a strictly economic perspective, the problem is that such trade agreements run counter to the long-standing American commitment to free-market economic policy. Indeed, U.S. farm policy is a big part of the problem, as commodities such as cane sugar are heavily protected from imports because of the incestuous relationship between lobbyists, organized interest groups, and congressmen in Washington. If the U.S. agricultural economy moved toward a real free-market system, there would be vastly improved prospects for exporters in Latin America, which would provide more employment opportunities and therefore less incentive to emigrate to the U.S.
Brazil's President "Lula" da Silva left no doubt about his government's strong opposition to the Bush foreign policy. He got some laughs from his countrymen for some ribald words poking fun at his North American guest -- all in good fun, of course! Lula's political judgment is often lacking, but I am more and more impressed with his combination of prudence and public style. Not many leaders can do both things. All in all, the stop in Brazil got things off to a good start, at least.
In Uruguay, Bush met with Tabare Vazquez. Not much has happened in Uruguay since his leftist Broad Front took power in 2005, upsetting the traditional political establishment there. Vazquez signed a food-for-oil agreement with Hugo Chavez [early in his term], and his country has been in a dispute with Argentina over a pulp mill along the Uruguay River. While Bush was in Montevideo, "Chavez tried to steal his thunder by staging an anti-Bush rally in a soccer stadium filled with Venezuelan flags, Che Guevara banners, and signs saying: 'Bush Get Out!'" See washingtonpost.com
The visit to Colombia was the first time a U.S. president had been to the capital city Bogota since 1982, but the hurried seven-hour stay hurt feelings of Colombian people. Well, that's probably unavoidable, given the risky circumstances there. Bush's friendly sentiments were not reciprocated, as 2,000+ protesters smashed windows and clashed with police after he passed them by. Because of the terrorist threat, "U.S. officials arranged for a second motorcade to serve as a decoy." Yikes. Bush praised President Uribe for his strenuous efforts to subdue the FARC narco-terrorist movement. See Washington Post. Some success in this decades-long civil war is indicated by the fact that the rival ELN guerrilla group is winding down its campaign and is now negotiating peace terms. But until U.S. drug policy is reformed, there will be a steady flow of cash to keep the violence going.
In Guatemala, Bush discussed the problem of narco-traffic gangs with President Oscar Berger, who was concerned primarily about U.S. immigration policy. Berger expressed strong disappointed that Bush did not commit to ending deportations of illegal immigrants. The Washington Post indicates that "10 percent of [Guatemala's] population has moved north of the Rio Grande." (Seriously, whose problem is that?) Bush also stopped at the Mayan ruins of Iximche, after which Indian leaders held ceremonies at archeological sites Bush visited to "cleanse the evil spirits" he allegedly left.
In Mexico, immigration policy was also the number one item on the agenda. President Felipe Calderon sharply criticized Bush for the wall being built along the border, even though it was not Bush's idea in the first place. See Washington Post and El Universal (in English). Bush said he is optimistic: "I will work with Congress, members of both political parties, to pass immigration law that will enable us to respect the rule of law -- and at the same time, respect humanity." (See CNN.com.) The tragedy of U.S.-Latin American relations at the present time is that those two objectives are widely seen as mutually contradictory. In Mexico's case, in contrast to the rest of Latin America, U.S. policy is constrained by the obligation to accommodate a government that is about as friendly as we can expect under current circumstances. That doesn't mean bending over backward or turning a blind eye to border-crossers, but it does mean making strong reciprocal gestures of cooperation aimed at demonstrating good will and respect for a country that, for all its faults, deserves it.
U.S.-owned Chiquita Brands International will pay a $25 million fine for having paid $1.7 million in protection money to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) militias, under a settlement with the Department of Justice. See BBC. The AUC is notorious for involvement in drug trafficking and committing human rights abuses, and is classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department. They have made hesitant steps toward disarmament in recent years, though many people doubt the sincerity of their commitment. For many wealthy rural landowners, the AUC is the most reliable security force. It is important to note that several conservative political allies of President Uribe have been linked to the AUC in the last few months, an embarrassment for the Bush administration.
Latest word is that Fidel Castro seems to be recovering, so he may well linger on for the rest of the year or perhaps beyond. Also, the level of violence in Mexico and Venezuela has declined in recent months. I've updated the Latin American Presidents & elections table accordingly.