President Bush is scheduled to return today from his seven-day trip to Latin America. Hoping to dispel growing criticisms that the U.S. has neglected its southern neighbors since the beginning of Bush’s first term, the president traveled to five carefully selected “friendly” nations in the region-Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico-that administration officials say have demonstrated an ability to “make good decisions.” Bush’s hope was to highlight Washington’s involvement in poverty alleviation efforts through U.S. investments in rural hospitals and farmers’ cooperatives, the administration’s long-standing support of free trade, and through emulating open-market neo-liberalism. Despite these aspirations, the overwhelming expressions of local discontent and cool responses by several of the leaders plagued Bush’s trip at every turn.
In every nation, neglected Latin Americans voiced their disapproval of the visiting president. In São Paulo, Brazil, over 6,000 anti-bush protestors crowded the city streets. A decoy presidential motorcade was needed in Bogotá to thwart possible violence as Bush traveled between the airport and the presidential palace. Mayan priests in Guatemala announced their intentions to purify an archeological site of ‘bad spirits’ after Bush’s visit, and an estimated 2,000 protestors attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. White House officials have blamed the Venezuelan President and anti-American antagonist, Hugo Chávez, as being responsible for the organized protests, as the Venezuelan leader simultaneously toured Latin America as an act of opposition to Bush’s message of U.S. commitment. Nevertheless, the message is clear: Latin America is disenchanted with its northern ‘big brother’ and, unless some major policy changes are made, Washington cannot expect its relations with the region to automatically improve. The White House will be doing itself a grave disservice if it camouflages the reality that the U.S. has reached new lows in its unpopularity throughout the region. Washington’s recent distraction over Iraq has allowed Latin America to learn to act autonomously in establishing new relations with non-traditional nations throughout the world.
A variety of recurrent themes were discussed in Bush’s talks with the Latin American presidents. The drug war was among the staple items on Bush’s agenda as he restated his commitment to Colombia’s counter-narcotic efforts and voiced his support of Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s rising campaign against organized crime in Mexico. The U.S. president’s urgent attempts to promote free trade policies in the region though fell on many deaf ears as even the conservative Calderon expressed his desire to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement in order to alleviate trade asymmetries and protect small farmers. Growing distrust of U.S. free trade policies has spread in Latin America as twenty or more years of U.S.-backed practices in a number of the region’s nations have failed to create the promised ‘trickle-down’ effect. As economic disparities deepen in Latin America, it is no wonder why leftist-revolutionaries, preaching wealth redistribution, the power of the lower classes, and an end to U.S. led economic policies, have seen their tempo accelerate and their influence spread.
Bush’s failure to follow through with his campaign promise to enact immigration reform was openly criticized by every president with whom he met. In the aftermath of 9-11, the Bush’s administration cracked-down on border security but failed to address the origins of the border problem or the issue of illegal immigrants already residing in America. Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala represent the four nations with the largest number of citizens living in the U.S. These governments have repeatedly asked the White House to develop a more cohesive Guest Workers program, offer more efficient avenues for citizenship for their nationals living illegally in the U.S., and revise border policy. Bush’s decision in September 2006 approving the construction of a 700-mile long wall along the U.S.-Mexico border enraged Latin Americans and provided validation to their claims that Bush had forgotten them along with his pledge to devise new approaches to refugee and Guest Workers’ issues. These sentiments only worsened when, just days before Bush’s departure for Latin America, 300 immigrants in Massachusetts were detained because of their illegal status. Consequently, it was made clear by the five Latin American presidents Bush visited that the White House’s promise and subsequent failure to address Washington’s insulting immigration policy will not quickly be forgotten (or, for that matter, forgiven) in Latin America, and it will continue to taint the way in which the U.S. is perceived in the region.
President Bush was hoping to convince Latin Americans that the U.S. had not forgotten them and that, in fact, U.S. policy towards the region had been beneficial during the past six years of accused neglect. He also insisted that the continuation and enhancement of free trade in the region was for the benefit of everyone, not just the U.S. economy and the Latin American elite. What he has hopefully come realize is that Latin America is beyond the point of being disillusioned by such improbable assertions. Anti-American sentiments in the region and the rise in popularity of fiery leftist leaders willing to challenge U.S. diplomacy are not isolated phenomena. Failed U.S. initiatives, imbalanced trade agreements, and self-serving foreign policy indisputably have soured relations between Washington and Latin America. Perhaps now, in retrospect, Bush will better understand why his and his administration’s policies have provoked such widespread resentment in Latin America and why he, personally, is such a reviled figure throughout the region. Be it neglect, indifference, or an inability to either focus on critical issues or appoint seasoned professionals rather than shrill ideologues to head the State Departments Latin America bureau, it will be remembered that is was on Bush’s watch that the battle for Latin America’s good will and co-identity was fought and lost.
KATHERINE HANCY WHEELER is a Research Associate at COHA.