Bush leaves Latin America empty-handed
Rory Carroll in Caracas, Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogota and Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Wednesday March 14, 2007Guardian Unlimited
George Bush wrapped up a tour of Latin America tonight with little to show for his six-day swing through the region.
The US president was due to head home with no substantive deals or immediate evidence that the public relations offensive had salvaged Washington's reputation in the five countries he visited.
No breakthroughs had been expected but Mr Bush hoped to soften hostility towards himself and his administration's policies on trade and immigration by expressing concern for the region's poor.
His stops in Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, chosen for their relatively friendly governments, were marked by street protests and lukewarm to cold reviews by local media.
Venezuela's president, Hugo ChÃ¡vez, stole some of the attention by denouncing the "little imperial gentleman from the north" during a shadow tour, but he failed to draw his rival into a war of words or score a knockout public relations victory.
Mr ChÃ¡vez drew some adoring crowds in Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Haiti, and announced several oil-funded aid and trade packages, but his hosts declined to join his verbal attacks on the US.
"Most governments are notably pragmatic these days and are willing to deal with both the Bush and ChÃ¡vez administrations, and take advantage of opportunities that arise," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank.
"ChÃ¡vez may have won wallets with his economic deals and promises but his belligerent rhetoric resonated only with a narrow sector. Bush was subdued and kept the cowboy swagger in check, but with resources tied up in Iraq and elsewhere, had little concrete to offer."
Mr Bush's meeting today with his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, was overshadowed by anger at a new border fence that the host, who as a pro-market conservative ought to be an ideological soulmate, likened to the Berlin wall.
In an interview with a Mexican newspaper he said he did not have high hopes for the Bush meeting and said he wanted closer ties to Cuba, suggesting that it was too late for Mr Bush to patch up nearly two terms' worth of disappointments beyond the vague hope of pushing a migration accord through Congress.
During an otherwise warm encounter, Guatemala's president, Oscar Berger, complained to his visitor about the arrest and deportation of hundreds of Guatemalan workers in raids in Massachusetts last week. Resentment at the hardships immigrants face as well as the war in Iraq prompted a Mayan tribe in Guatemala to perform a ritual cleansing at a site visited by Mr Bush. Meanwhile in the capital, riot police used tear gas to quell protesters who threw eggs and stones and set fire to US flags.
The US president was received with hearty back slaps by Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, a close ally whose country has received more than $4.5bn from Washington since 2000 to fight drug trafficking and leftist rebels.
But Mr Bush faces an uphill battle delivering a free trade agreement and further aid because the Democrat-controlled US Congress is concerned over Colombia's record on labour rights and the government's alleged ties to right-wing paramilitaries. "The days of blank checks are over," James McGovern, a Democrat congressman, said on a recent visit to BogotÃ¡ ahead of Mr Bush's stopover.
Domestic contraints also prevented the president offering significant economic deals to Uruguay and Brazil, prompting taunts from Mr ChÃ¡vez that the gringo was a "political cadaver".
The failure of Washington-backed, market-friendly policies to lift Latin Americans out of poverty set the "pink tide" of leftist governments in motion long before Mr Bush reached the White House in 2000.
Analysts say his focus on terrorism after the September 11 2001 attacks compounded Washington's loss of influence in a region once considered its backyard.
"The collapse of American credibility under Bush accelerated a process already underway in which Latin America seems now, at least geopolitically, to be declaring its true independence, even though that happened in the 19th century, technically," said Julia Sweig, author of Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century.
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