The United States and Latin America
Mr Bush goes south
Mar 1st 2007
From The Economist print edition
How America can win the battle for influence against Venezuela's Hugo Chávez
IF YOU are George Bush, the prospect of spending a week in Latin America must be appealing just at the
moment. How better to escape an unappreciative Congress and ungrateful Middle East? And if during the
Latin American tour he starts on March 8th Mr Bush bumps into the odd demonstration, so what? That
can happen anywhere nowadays.
Mr Bush cannot be completely relaxed in Latin America. The United States is locked in a regional battle
for influence with Venezuela's oil-intoxicated autocrat, Hugo Chávez. Yet the worst thing for Mr Bush to
do if he wants to win that battle is to talk too much about Venezuela on this trip: that would only puff Mr
Chávez up further, and attract the usual Latin grumbles about yanqui bullying. So it is excellent that Mr
Bush intends to spend most of his time in the region's three most populous countries, Brazil, Mexico and
Mr Bush has serious business to do at each stop (see article). Brazil is one of many countries in Latin
America that could supply the world with cheap ethanol if only the United States scrapped the tariffs and
subsidies that protect its own less efficient maize and sugar farmers. Colombia needs continued American
help against the cocaine gangs and the violence they spawn. In Mexico Mr Bush will have to talk about
immigration. Tighter security has made it much harder for Mexican workers to cross illegally into the
United States, but their labour is still needed and Mexico is still waiting for America to come up with a
way to let more enter legally.
If he offered more help on these fronts, Mr Bush could give Latin Americans the sense of partnership with
the United States that is missing at present. But to do so he will have to take some work home. For on
immigration and trade it is now Congress rather than the White House that holds the key to progress.
And although immigration reform still looks possible, the trade outlook is bleaker. The Democrats who
control Congress may in the coming months approve free-trade deals with Peru and Panama, but look set
to block one with Colombia because they are angry about revelations linking Álvaro Uribe's government
to right-wing paramilitary groups. Mr Bush needs to persuade Congress that that would be a mistake.
The revelations have come to the surface because of the growing vigour of democracy in the less violent
Colombia Mr Uribe has delivered. He deserves continued support.
Respect sovereignty, but speak up for democracy too
As for Venezuela, Mr Chávez is no friend of the United States (he calls it simply “the empire”) and seems
to enjoy the company of other anti-American demagogues, from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
to London's publicity-hungry mayor, Ken Livingstone. But if he poses a danger, it is to the rest of Latin
America, where his simplistic ideas are sometimes popular, rather than to the United States, which even
after the mid-term elections does not seem to be lusting for a “Bolivarian revolution”. By the same token,
it is the other governments of Latin America, rather than the United States, that are best placed to
counter his influence.
They have no right to interfere with his programme of nationalisation, however wrongheaded it may be,
or the rest of his economic policy: those things are the sovereign business of Venezuela. And it is a mere
three months since Venezuelans gave Mr Chávez a strong mandate in a pretty fair election. Yet his
neighbours should not allow the money and cheap oil Mr Chávez splashes around their region to stop
them from speaking out when he appears to be hollowing out democracy in a part of the world where it is
still fragile. Mr Chávez is promising to silence the main opposition television station. He has given himself
powers to rule by decree for the next 18 months and proposes to scrap the term limits in the constitution
so that he could stand for re-election indefinitely.
Brazil's Lula says that he quietly urges moderation on his Venezuelan counterpart, but there is no
evidence that this is changing Mr Chávez's direction of travel. If he continues on the same path, Latin
America's democrats will soon have to consider whether he belongs in their clubs. Mr Bush should
meanwhile concentrate less on what he would like the rest of Latin America to do to Mr Chávez and more
on what the United States can do for the rest of Latin America.
Stop helping Fidel
One of the biggest gestures Mr Bush could make would be to support moves to scrap the United States'
unfair and counter-productive trade embargo against Cuba, a country that no longer poses any threat to
the United States and whose people are now daring to contemplate what a post-Castro future might look
like. Slamming the door on closer economic co-operation in the Americas, whether inspired by
protectionism or ideology, is a gift to Mr Chávez and his supporters in other countries. If the United
States wants a hemisphere led by pro-market democrats, it should give the region's people every help
they need to work and trade their way to prosperity.