"Protests Erupt Amid Bush's Latin America Trip" screamed the headlines during the U.S. president's recent visit to that part of the world, which concluded in Mexico last Tuesday. So what else is new? There's nothing quite so predictable as the news coverage of such VIP visits; you can almost write the headlines in advance.
I've been reading those apocalyptic headlines ever since I first went to Latin America nearly 50 years ago, and they were no different last week when President Bush traveled to Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Uruguay. Mainstream media coverage always emphasizes noisy protests over substantive achievements on priority policy issues such as terrorism and trade relations. After all, Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it, unless the news involves violent demonstrations and/or natural disasters.
When President Bush visited Latin America two years ago, I wrote that the more U.S.ÐLatin America relations change, the more they stay the same, and noted that anti-American demonstrations date back to the late 1950s, when Vice President Nixon was stoned (literally) in Caracas, Venezuela. I personally observed several such demonstrations when high-ranking American officials visited countries where I was stationed as a diplomat. There were angry protests against First Lady Rosalynn Carter when she went to Colombia in the late 1970s and against Vice President Dan Quayle when he visited Caracas in the mid-1980s.
Protesters burned tires and denounced Yankee imperialism, as they always do, and many of them lined up outside American embassies the following morning to apply for tourist visas. Go figure! When I worked in Latin America, I joked that no matter what went wrong, students and agitators would immediately head for the nearest American Embassy. And in the final analysis, one of the few things Latin Americans can agree upon among themselves is that they don't like U.S. foreign policy. Beyond that, each country defends its own national interests, which shouldn't surprise anyone who has taken International Relations 101.
We're frequently warned that Latin America is moving to the left, but as a former U.S. president might say, it all depends upon what you mean by "left." Some of Latin America's "leftist" presidents have turned out to be pragmatic politicians, putting national interests ahead of ideology. Only Venezuela's dictator wannabe Hugo Chavez and his Bolivian protégé, Evo Morales, are out there on the lunatic fringe. In fact, Chavez launched his own anti-Bush tour to coincide with our president's visit to the region.
Leading chants of "Gringo go home," Chavez charged that Bush's trip was an attempt to confuse and divide Latin America and described our president as a "political cadaver." Very classy, don't you think? I liked the way White House Press Secretary Tony Snow responded to those who attempted to manufacture a Bush vs. Chavez confrontation in the media. "I know you want to make this trip about Chavez," Snow told reporters aboard Air Force One. "It's not." Wisely, Bush ignored the Venezuelan and never mentioned him by name. End of story.
Agreements with Brazil and Uruguay
Meanwhile, other "leftist" presidents like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Tabare' Vazquez of Uruguay were doing business with the U.S. In Brasilia, Bush signed an ethanol development agreement with "Lula," a former labor union firebrand, and in Montevideo he and Vazquez signed a new free trade agreement. "I don't think America gets enough credit for improving peoples' lives," Bush said along the way as he reminded his audiences that the U.S. has doubled development aid to the region to $1.6 billion annually since he took office six years ago.
As usual, journalists and some opportunistic politicians clamored for the president to "pay more attention to Latin America." Translation: Spend more taxpayer dollars in that part of the world. But that isn't going to happen any time soon with the Bush administration bogged down in a multi-billion-dollar Iraqi quagmire.
During his trip, the president focused equal attention on economic and social issues in order to counter the totalitarian challenge posed by Chavez and his friends and to answer complaints that we've ignored Latin concerns in favor of the campaign against terrorism. But let's face it, the war on terror takes precedence over Latin America in any realistic assessment of U.S. foreign policy concerns.
So let's be realistic about U.S.ÐLatin America relations. We can't solve Latin America's problems and neither can left-wing ideologues like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. In fact, Cuba is an economic basket case and Venezuela soon will be unless Chavez changes course to reach some kind of détente with the private sector in that oil-rich country. Only the Latin Americans can solve their own problems. I wish them well.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, lived and worked in Latin America for more than 15 years during his U.S. Foreign Service career.