Bush Heads Off on Rocky Road Down South

President Bush has left of a very difficult trip, this time south of the border, to try and build up American prestige, i.e., power and influence. If American prestige in Latin America has been at a lower ebb than at any time in the 48 years since I began to report on Latin America, I can’t remember when that might have been.

Just how difficult is the president’s mission? (It takes him, by the way, from March 8 to 14, to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, in that order.)

In advance of his travel, the Administration dispatched to the region one cabinet minister — Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzalez and two top State Department officials: Nicholas Burns, assistant secretary for political affairs, and Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere.

The two State Department worthies — echoing the White House — unveiled a new wrinkle in international relations: A country is a friend of the United States if the United States says it is a friend. They, for example, described Argentina as a friend of the U.S. Argentina is not a friend of the U.S., as its pesky president, Nestor Kirchner, goes to lengths to demonstrate, repeatedly.

No sooner had the Washington trio left town than Kirchner journeyed — again — to Caracas to shmooze with its troublemaking president, Hugo Chavez, in a variety of photo-ops.

"Much has been said lately," Kirchner said, "about countries that must contain other countries, or in the case of President Lula (of Brazil) and me, we have to contain President Chavez. Tremendous mistake. We will remain very respectful of the internal situation of each country."

Now, just in case that isn’t plain enough, Kirchner then spread a welcome mat for Chavez to hold an anti-Bush rally in a Buenos Aires stadium the same day that Bush will be visiting Uruguay, across the Rio de la Plata. But then, Kirchner pulled a similar stunt in 2004 during the Americas Summit Conference held in Argentina’s prime sea resort, Mar del Plata. That time, Kirchner provided Chavez with the facilities needed to head up an anti-Bush rally in a Mar del Plata stadium. This time, he has assigned the secretary-general of his presidential office to help Chavez organize the rally and related U.S.-bashing events.

Brazil — the 500-pound gorilla of Latin America (and world’s ninth-largest economy) — and Argentina are, in fact, the key to undercutting Chavez, who spends entire days and nights heaping verbal dung on the U.S. in general, and Bush in particular. That, when he is not busy dismantling democracy in his country and pouring billions of dollars into the old Soviet Union to buy armaments (which he then attempts to fob off as made necessary to defend his country against a mythical U.S. invasion). Those armaments include nine, state-of-the-art (non-nuclear) submarines, 54 attack helicopters, 24 SU-30 fighter bombers, and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.

Altogether, his arms spending adds up to $8 billion, which is about what China, India, Pakistan or Iran — all much bigger — spend on arms. His anti-democratic ways do not, however, faze the mighty mugwumps of Latin America — despite the virtual religion they make of their passionate embrace of democracy. Those pretty words are, however, trumped by the fact that Chavez, awash in oil riches, is able to offer inducements not even the biggest of countries (Argentina and Brazil, for example) can resist, and much less the smaller countries of the region.

"Lula" — Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva — just last Thursday scolded the U.S. for not paying enough attention to Latin America, and especially not to South America. It was, in effect, a warning shot across Bush’s bow. Lula then resorted to allegory: Relations with the U.S., he said, are "mature." But, he wanted it known, one ought never confuse the cordial relations which two heads of state ought to have on a personal level with country-to-country relations. "It is possible," he said, to have a cordial relationship, without that implying servility, as in the past." "Servility" is one of the favorite Latin American buzzwords applied to past relations with the U.S. Lula, like many of the current crop of leftist leaders in power in Latin America, came out of a revolutionary leftist background.

Kirchner also weighed in last week with his own spirited defense of the relationship with Chavez, referring especially to Chavez’ proposal to set up a joint Bank of the South — with Venezuela, of course, putting up the money. "Argentina," he said, "always will be Latin Americanist, independent, plural and integrated with the peoples of South America." Integration does not, however, mean only moonlight-and-roses; Argentina is, in fact, locked into an ugly scrap with Uruguay because of a cellulose plant the Uruguayans are building on a river which separates the two countries.

Although neither side has commented on it, it is evident that Messrs. Burns and Shannon were instructed to tests the waters for including Argentina on the Bush itinerary. Obviously, the welcome mat was NOT out.

On the other side of the continent, Ecuador’s new president, Rafael Correa, chimed in with his own broadside. Ecuador, he said, will engage in trade talks with the European Union –but not with principal trading partner, the United States. In that, Correa reflected a prevailing mind set in Latin America: Taking pot shots at the U.S. is good, low-cost politics.

Indeed, of the five countries on Bush’s itinerary, only Colombia can be said to be a tried-and-true friend — and that, in no small part, because Colombia is wary of the potential for mischief of northern neighbor, Venezuela. Colombia needs U.S. arms which Washington gladly supplies for Colombia’s war on the drug cartels. Those arms also dissuade Venezuelan adventurism. Mexico is "friendly" so long as it is getting its way with the U.S.

Chavez — an authentic blow-hard — has, in fact, set himself up as the ailing Fidel Castro’s alter-ego — though there is no reason to believe that Castro has all that much confidence in Chavez. Chavez first wormed his way into Castro’s favor by offering him $6 billion worth of subsidized oil, as well as other credits. (For Argentina, to take another example, Chavez bought up $3.2 billion worth of its foreign debt, as well as providing subsidized oil. For Brazil, the big bait so far has been a joint agreement for both countries to search for oil in Venezuela’s Orinoco jungles.)

Bush does have one potential ace up his sleeve: Brazil and the U.S. together account for seventy percent of the world’s ethanol market. Bush plans to propose to Lula a joint effort to develop ethanol as an alternative to petroleum-based fuel. Lula has expressed interest in that idea.

Realism does, sometimes, steal revolution’s thunder.

But, as the major — and mainly, pro-U.S.newspaper, El Mercurio of Santiago, put it:

This is the biggest Latin American trip of Bush’s presidency. Expectations for the trip: