On March 10, President George W. Bush traveled on a seven-day tour to Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico in an effort to regain popularity in Latin America, to address topics of interest for the U.S. in Latin America and to counter the influence of the left-wing movement that has increasingly grown in the past five years.
However, Latin American experts say his visit will not bring any long-lasting benefits.
Miguel Tinker-Salas, professor of history and expert on Latin American studies at Pomona College, said the problem is that Bush has become a lame duck president who only has 18 months left to govern and he cannot get his own party to work with him on external policies.
Bush’s unpopularity in Latin American is due to his inability to engage in negotiations, his support for neo-liberal policies that have failed in Latin America and the imposition of the U.S. in the world through military action, he said.
“His level of popularity is extremely low because he represents the arrogance of U.S. policy, his projection of military power, his unwillingness to actually enter into multilateral discussions,” Tinker-Salas said. Which is why “Bush confronted difficult protests in every city and every country he went (to).”
Bush’s agenda during his trip covered energy issues, the fight against terrorism, narco-trafficking, and education, but most importantly the promotion of free trade between the U.S. and Latin American countries, Tinker-Salas said.
Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens, assistant professor of history at CSUN, said Bush’s main goal in Latin America was to endorse free trade and in a sense he related the trade agreements to democracy. But people who have felt the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and most recently the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) did not respond well to his approach, she said.
“In many cases, the laws that were required by CAFTA actually mandated changes to local labor laws, eliminated things like pensions, they got de-unionized, eliminated all kinds of subsidies for agriculture,” Fitzpatrick-Behrens said. “All the things people would rely on to be able to stay in their county.”
She added that Bush saw economic potential even though this forced people to leave their native countries.
Tinker-Salas said the visit to Uruguay was mainly to talk about the possibility to establish a free trade agreement, but he said that nation lacks the potential to compete with the U.S. since both countries produce relatively the same goods – beef and wheat.
However, the U.S. products are subsidized to the point that Uruguay and other countries do not have the same opportunities for profits.
Tinker-Salas added that the president of Brazil, Luiz In’aacute;cio Lula Da Silva, will not negotiate a free trade agreement with the U.S. unless agricultural subsidies are removed, but the U.S. will not remove them because of the political clout that farming industries have in Washington D.C.
“Most Latin American countries look at Mexico as the example of free trade policies, where NAFTA has now been implemented since 1994,” he said. “Mexican agriculture has been devastated.”
If Brazil takes into consideration the NAFTA effect on Mexican soil, they will realize it is not what they want for the agricultural production or their people, Tinker-Salas said. On the other hand, Bush has interest in the ethanol production in Brazil, which cannot be exported due to the high tariffs the U.S. imposes on the product, he added.
Bush’s visit to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was mainly to reiterate the support of the U.S. for Plan Colombia, a plan aimed to counter narco-trafficking, and to provide more military support, Fitzpatrick-Behrens said.
“Bush is not going to be able to stop narco-traffic (in Colombia). He can put more money there, but (it) certainly is not going to help,” Fitzpatrick-Behrens said. “If anything, (it) is going to create more violence because there is no solution for that.”
In Mexico and Guatemala, the last two stops for the president’s tour, the topics of discussion were the issue of immigration reform. In Guatemala, Bush was confronted by President Oscar Berger regarding resent massive deportations, Fitzpatrick-Behrens said.
“There had been an expulsion of a group of immigrants whose children were citizens without any provision for their children. So Berger, who has traditionally been right-wing (and) U.S. allied, confronted Bush on this,” Fitzpatrick-Behrens said.
Aside from asking for immigration reform, the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, asked Bush to do something to aid Mexico in stopping the loss of its people, due in part to the neo-liberal trade reform NAFTA, Fitzpatrick-Behrens added.
Maria Garcia-Acevedo, assistance professor of political science and expert on Mexican politics, said the only way Bush can help on an immigration reform is by lobbing Congress because this is not an issue that he can compromise on.
“From the Mexican perspective and their concern with immigration reform, there was not a lot to offer in that sense,” Garcia-Acevedo said. “The benefit is that the two presidents were able to talk directly about the preoccupations of each other.”
For Tinker-Salas, Mexico and the U.S. did not reach any concrete agreements because Bush did not have any solid proposals.
“(Bush’s) suitcases were empty. He arrived with empty hands,” Tinker-Salas said. “It was doubtful that Mexico would see any concrete benefits.”
Fitzpatrick-Behrens said the trip through Latin America was also to offset the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in those countries.
“There is increasing concern because Chavez has been effective in getting popular support within Venezuela, trying to establish the unification of different Latin American countries and (specifically) trying to establish counter balance to the United States Free Trade Agreement,” Fitzpatrick-Behrens said.
Tinker-Salas said he agreed the trip to Latin America was closely related to the growing support for left-wing governments such as Lula De Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Michelle Bachelet in Chile and the return to power of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
“The Latin American leaders have began to take their own course, the Latin American leaders are no longer waiting for Uncle Sam to do something before they react,” Tinker-Salas said.
Tinker-Salas added that many of these countries are working to organize Mercosur, a trade network where the U.S. will not be the centerpiece of attention, and that is provoking the concern of the Bush administration.
“They have long perceived Latin America as the safe backyard and it is no longer that,” Tinker-Salas said.