Adam Ash

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Here comes that stupid gringo Bush

1. Bush's Spring Break -- by Mark Engler/

Whether out of a desire to escape his record-low approval ratings at home or a hunger for Mexican tamales and Brazilian rice and beans, George W. Bush is making a run south of the border. This week the president will stop in Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico—making his longest-ever official visit to Latin America. Taking place at a time when feelings of animosity toward the United States are widespread, the tour will serve as Bush’s most concerted effort yet to improve relations with the region.

What are the odds that his travels will do anything to reverse anti- yanqui sentiment? Not good. Our neighbors to the south have ample reason to be resentful. They have suffered from a White House approach to Latin America that is based on a fundamentally flawed conception of U.S national interest.

In a speech on Monday, the president contended that his trip will signal a new, more caring attitude toward Latin America and its people, including the large populations that live in poverty. But actions speak louder than words. Few things say more about the Bush administration’s attitudes toward Latin America than the appointment in February of John Negroponte to Deputy Secretary of State. Negroponte was an ardent Cold Warrior who served as ambassador to Honduras for a stretch in the 1980s when the country became a haven for death squads and CIA-funded Contra mercenaries. Negroponte’s promotion made it ever more clear that Bush policy is being defined by Reaganite reactionaries whose conception of international relations is based on an outdated notion of U.S. power and Latin American acquiescence.

This rearguard policymaking has little chance of swaying a region that is growing increasingly independent. A foreign policy that values strong democracies and shows genuine concern for the people of Latin America, the majority of whom live in or near poverty, is far more likely to win allies than the diplomatic strong-arming and electoral meddling that has so often marked U.S. relations with Latin America.

Fates Worse Than Neglect

The failure of past U.S. policy is not merely a problem for the current administration; it also presents a challenge for the Democrats. Before gaining a majority of seats in Congress, the Dems claimed that the President had failed to pay enough attention to Latin America. In 2004, John Kerry argued in his campaign that Bush's Latin America policy was marked by "neglect, failure to adequately support democratic institutions, and inept diplomacy." Since then, various Democrats have repeated the charge, using the language of "neglect" whenever Latin America comes up.

Yet now that the Democrats hold more power, this observation no longer suffices as a position on hemispheric affairs. Under President Clinton, Democratic policy toward Latin America focused on promoting an aggressive “free trade” agenda and pushing poor countries to pursue a corporate-friendly path to development. Clinton, after all, was the president who ushered the North American Free Trade Agreement through a Democratic-controlled Congress. Clinton further envisioned spreading NAFTA throughout the hemisphere with a Free Trade Area of the Americas. (Thankfully, the FTAA has been buried in recent years by waves of popular resistance, as well as disinterest from the new generation of progressive presidents that has won office in countries throughout the region.)

Clinton-style economic neoliberalism failed to benefit the majority of Latin Americans, and this failure is at the very root of the region’s recent swing to the left. Policies like privatizing public industries, cutting government social spending and deregulating financial sectors may have paved the way for multinational corporations to spread. However, they produced two decades of abysmal GDP growth in Latin America. While a small elite grew fantastically wealthy, most people in the region saw few, if any, improvements to their standard of living.

The 1990s were supposed to be years of globalizing prosperity. Yet the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported in 2001 that “nearly 36 percent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean lives below the poverty line—the same proportion as a decade ago. This number greatly understates the number of citizens who are scraping together only meager livelihoods or relying on money sent back from family members who have migrated north. Moreover, the wealth that has been produced in the region has not been shared equally. As a 2003 World Bank report explains, “The richest one-tenth of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean earn 48 percent of total income, while the poorest tenth earn only 1.6 percent.”

Of late, economic elitism has been smacking up against the popular vote. Comfortable candidates promising pro-U.S. policies are learning that it’s hard to win elections with only that richest one-tenth of the population behind you. The Latin American populace is clearly fed up with neoliberalism’s lackluster results, and rightly so.

Democrats who propose a return to Clinton-era policy that values “free markets” above all else have missed this key lesson. They may vow to pay more attention to Latin America, but there’s no guarantee that such attention will be a good thing. Given their past relations with the United States, Latin Americans are all too aware that there are worse things than neglect. It is incumbent upon the Democrats to offer a positive vision of America’s national interest that can transcend both Bush’s Cold War-minded approach to hemispheric affairs and the flawed corporate globalization still favored by segments of the party.

Beyond Hugo Chávez

One of the key pressures motivating U.S. action to improve its image in Latin America is the rise of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela as a formidable ideological rival. The most outspoken of the left-of-center Latin American presidents, Chávez has cemented his popularity by using the windfall of high oil prices to fund anti-poverty initiatives in Venezuela and beyond. He has sent upwards of $16 billion in aid abroad in recent years, with especially significant infusions of resources going to Bolivia and Argentina. Chávez has gone so far as to send subsidized heating oil to families that might otherwise go cold in poor sections of New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and other American cities.

No doubt, there are criticisms to be made of Chávez’s style of governing, but the rabid Bush White House and the mainstream newspapers that have followed its lead have lost all sense of proportion in their outrage about Venezuela’s “checkbook diplomacy.” The denunciations make it sound as if Venezuela could have no humanitarian vision whatsoever about helping those in need, and as if the money that the U.S. sends overseas as foreign aid is offered out of pure, untainted benevolence. Given the Bush administration’s well-established ideological preoccupation with shrinking government and its distaste for social safety nets, it has little credibility to speak out about the proper way to deploy the profits from oil resources. As it is, Venezuela’s example is a powerful and persuasive one in a region that is ready for more equitable economic policies.

Chávez has charged that the intent of Bush’s trip is “to divide Latin America.” He’s right. A main White House strategy for handling newly progressive governments has been to denounce the vaguely ominous dangers of “populism” and try to separate “good” Latin American leftists from “bad” ones. Bush has selected to visit countries where he thinks he can pull leaders away from a Chávez-led regional bloc.

But the real issues go far beyond Chávez, and those who want to pin our country’s image problem in Latin America on a single antagonist ignore a central reality: Being on the U.S.’s good side hasn’t been paying off too handsomely. In Brazil, where President Lula da Silva has worked to maintain good relations with the IMF and U.S. Treasury by largely adhering to neoliberal economic mandates, GDP growth over the past four years has averaged only 2.6 percent. This places Brazil alongside Haiti and El Salvador among the hemisphere’s slowest growing economies. As Lula continues to structure his government’s budgets around massive debt payments to wealthy lenders, he is left with little funding to devote to his flagship anti-hunger program and other social initiatives.

Argentina, by contrast, has seen a 45 percent increase in economic growth since 2002, when it broke with the Washington Consensus, forced creditors to restructure its debt, and began taking a hard line with the IMF, whose recommendations had helped to produce that country’s profound economic crisis in 2001.

Latin American governments are well aware of the numbers. They are under pressure from the region’s angry and enlivened citizenry to forge a more independent and egalitarian paths to development than what the U.S. is offering. That’s what democracy is all about. And it shouldn’t be considered a foreign policy failure that we must adapt to it.

(Mark Engler, an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is author of the forthcoming How to Rule the World: The New Politics of Fighting Empire in the Post-Bush Era. He can be reached via the web site . Research assistance for this article provided by Sean Nortz.)

2. An Answer for Hugo Chávez -- by Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexican Foreign Ministerfrom 2000 till 2003/

MEXICO CITY -- Each stop on President Bush's upcoming swing through Latin America has its own mini-agenda: ethanol and the Doha round with Brazil; a Trade Framework Agreement in Uruguay; Plan Colombia and drug enforcement in Bogotá; immigration and security with Mexico and Guatemala. But there is an overall agenda for which this trip may well represent too little, too late: Chávez containment.

The balance of forces in the region has shifted. Not only has the leftward tilt persisted -- with electoral victories in Nicaragua and Ecuador, unprecedented near-misses in Mexico and Peru, unexpected advances in Colombia -- but the Venezuelan president's influence has expanded. Hugo Chávez has found his sea legs and assembled an impressive array of tools to seduce the region. His "21st-century socialism" is a strange blend of a state-run economy, blanket social subsidies, a perpetual presidency, government by decree, and authoritarian theory and practices, as well as endless quarrels with Washington.

Thanks to unlimited oil revenue (for now) and an endless stream of Cuban doctors, educators and security personnel -- and soon, bountiful supplies of Russian arms made in Venezuela -- the new Caribbean caudillo is on a roll. Chávez has skillfully exploited the disappointment of the region's poor with the economic reforms of the past two decades; he is (for now) delivering the goods: bare-bones health care, literacy campaigns, price controls on food staples. Chávez has extended his reach to Bolivia, where Evo Morales worships him; to Argentina, where he and his populist colleague Néstor Kirchner are preparing a massive anti-Bush rally to coincide with the American president's arrival across the bay in Montevideo; and increasingly to Ecuador and Nicaragua, through generous handouts. Guatemala and Paraguay could be next.

While much of Chávez's socialism is either rhetorical or rooted in economic policy, it entails serious backsliding on human rights and representative democracy. Ultimately, if Chávez wants to wreck Venezuela's economy, that is the Venezuelan people's business; but if he seeks to extend his concentration of power in Venezuela or elsewhere, that is everybody's business. It is time for others to say so and to undertake the necessary ideological and political struggle to check Chávez and Havana, both rebutting their populist fallacies and failures and vaunting the merits of the democratic alternative, a globalized market economy, imperfect as it may be.

George W. Bush is the least appropriate person on Earth for this mission; he is immensely unpopular in Latin America -- not since Richard Nixon's trip to Caracas in 1959 have so many protests been likely -- and since Sept. 11, 2001, he has neglected the hemisphere. Many snicker that if he defends democracy in Latin America as well as he has in Iraq, only God can help Latin American democrats.

The good news is that there is someone who can do the job, if he receives political cover and international financial support for the task. Mexico's Felipe Calderón is ideally suited to engage Chávez and the Castro brothers in the inevitable ideological fisticuffs. He believes in human rights and democracy, and he understands macroeconomic policy and the need for effective anti-poverty programs. He also knows he has to get along with his northern neighbor.

Calderón, young and a forceful debater, is a better option than Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela. Brazil's left wing would not allow Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to take on Chávez, even if Lula wanted to. Chile is a splendid example of the success of sensible, socially minded policies, but President Michele Bachelet has proved unwilling to sing their praises. And while Oscar Arias of Costa Rica has the personal prestige and experience, his country does not.

Yet, even Calderón has a problem. His predecessors' public debates with Castro, Chávez and Kirchner played well with some Mexicans but went down terribly with the country's traditional establishment: the pro-Cuban PRD and the nationalist PRI old guard. Declared an illegitimate leader by his rival for the presidency and elected with only 35 percent of the vote, Calderón is understandably reluctant to brave the chattering classes without some guarantee that Bush will not leave him hanging on immigration, as he did Vicente Fox. Some believe that Calderón is thinking of throwing in the towel on the ideological debate and mending fences with Caracas, Havana and Buenos Aires, democracy and human rights violations notwithstanding.

But if Bush finally brings with him to Mexico a firm commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, and the bipartisan backing of House and Senate leaders to approve it promptly, Calderón would enjoy the necessary leeway to wage the battle of ideas with the region's populist tide. That would be the best way to contain it: with the ideas of Mexico and its friends, not with Washington's attempts at force.

(The writer was Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, under President Vicente Fox, and is now a professor of politics and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University.)


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