Bush on Tour

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The headlines spoke volumes: “Bush visits Colombia amid security and protests” – “Visit by Bush fires up Latins’ debate over socialism” – “Bush denies U.S. neglects neighbors”.  The citizens of the five Latin American nations President Bush visited on his recent tour of the region did not receive him well.

What Bush intended to be a “goodwill tour”, as well as a visit to herald an ethanol deal with Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, turned into a mêlée of protesters’ scuffling with police and making known to the world that the U.S. President was not welcome en su tierra. Responding to criticism that his administration has neglected Latin America, Bush spent much of his time in the region asserting the contrary: “I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives. And so my trip is to explain, as clearly as I can, that our nation is generous and compassionate.”

Bush’s campaign promises in 2000 to make relations with Latin America a top priority have not borne much fruit. During his run for the presidency, there was hope that then-Gov. Bush, who had presided over a 1,400 mile border between Texas and Mexico and who had garnered almost half of the Hispanic vote in his re-election bid for governor, would set a new direction in U.S.-Latin American relations, particularly regarding the issue of immigration reform.

However, 9/11 — and party politics — have made Bush’s plan for an immigration pact with Mexico a lesser priority, and the wars that stemmed from 9/11, although waged half a world away in Iraq and Afghanistan, have made him highly unpopular in Latin America. When addressing the region, Bush rarely lets his focus tarry far from the trio of trade, terror, and narco-trafficking issues that has defined the dialogue between the North and South for decades. Certainly these are issues that need to be tackled, particularly vis-à-vis the United States’s relationship with Colombia and Mexico, but Latin Americans feel a real discussion about the poverty and inequality from which a vast majority suffers, and the reasons for it, is long overdue.

However, when Bush did address poverty, and, in the same breath, claim that the generosity of U.S. aid packages to the region is overlooked, the President, not surprisingly, did not receive the approval or appreciation he sought.

Ignoring Latin American poverty at a time when the issue has arrived back on the radar with a vengeance has cost the United States a positive relationship with a geopolitically and economically important region. The ever-growing gap between rich and poor is largely attributed to the failure of twenty years’ worth of neo-liberal policies proposed by Washington, and Latin Americans are quick to blame their condition on the United States.

Making things worse for Pres. Bush, this school of thought now has a very vociferous spokesman in the form of Venezuela’s Chávez, who took the time to go on a “shadow tour” to blunt Bush’s proclamations of the success of free-market democracy and his explanation that his trip to the region was “a chance to tell the people … that the United States cares deeply about the human condition.” Chávez has capitalized on the region’s disenchantment with free-market capitalism and its long-standing memories of U.S. interventions and support of repressive dictatorships, and his grandstanding delivered a definitive blow to Bush’s message.

As the pundits, commentators, and columnists weighed in on the “success” or “failure” of Bush’s trip, most came to this conclusion: Latin Americans feel neglected by the United States. It is true in a sense that Bush has, perhaps through no fault of his own, reneged on his promise to make the region a priority for his administration, as his administration’s raison d’être has been to fight a war on terror. But is this really the reason why the region is so angry at the United States?

More than feeling neglected, Latin Americans feel that U.S. policy toward Latin America is set side-by-side with the United States’ own domestic agenda. This is particularly true in terms of the immigration issue and the drug war. It’s no wonder the region resents the resultant foreign policy, especially when it comes in the form of a xenophobic (and, frankly, preposterous) wall along the border or a one-sided, “It’s your fault” approach in dealing with the narcotics trade by spraying chemicals on coca crops. In both cases, these policies do little to halt and more to perpetuate the existence of much more complex problems, as well as anger an enormous number of people — from the indigenous populations and environmentalists in the Andes to the poor and desperate citizens in Mexico and elsewhere. This, coupled with the memory of Washington’s decades of meddling — which by many accounts is still occurring today in Venezuela, for one — is responsible for the high level of negativity towards the North.

The socialist fervor that has swept through the region this past year is no accident. Latin Americans are wary of the promotion of conventional U.S.-style democracy and suspicious of any political and economic involvement in their countries. Washington’s interests are well-known, and, as a result, the region and its leaders remain highly skeptical of “goodwill tours” and promises of mutually beneficial policies. Relations have suffered not because of neglect but because Washington has long paid the region the wrong kind of attention for the wrong reasons.