Bush's Latin America Tour Unproductive

(International Relations and Security Network, 15/03/2007)


US President George W Bush's recent trip to Latin America accomplished little, but highlighted one reality: US domestic politics will directly affect US foreign policy in Latin America until 2009.


Because he does not have control of Congress, Bush was not able to sign a single binding agreement or make any promises on his tour. It was more of a photo opportunity than a fruitful business trip.


Trade, immigration and drugs are the three bullet points on US foreign policy in Latin America.


Bush's stop in Brazil managed to produce a weak, forward-looking agreement regarding ethanol. The two countries agreed to share technology to develop alternative fuels to reduce dependence on oil. Brazil is a self-sustaining oil producer and does not need US help to develop ethanol. What it does need is market access, but moving the US tariff on Brazilian ethanol is a "non-starter" issue in Washington.


Flying to Uruguay, Bush met with Tabare Vasquez, who was eager to find a way for his country to remain a formal member of MercoSur yet benefit from improved trade with the US - a long shot. Vasquez asked his agriculture minister, Jose Mujica, to give Bush an overview of Uruguay's farming capabilities and potential product line for US consumers. Mujica did so, but with some reservation. "If I weren't a minister, I'd be marching against Bush," he told the The Los Angeles Times daily newspaper.


Bush repeatedly dodged questions concerning Chavez's so-called shadow tour. Timed in parallel with Bush's regional travels, Chavez's tour promoted the Bank of the South, signing on Bolivia and Nicaragua as member states, and tightened ties with Haiti and Jamaica.


Bush left Uruguay for Colombia, where he ignored a US congressman's request to address human rights and instead focused on showing support for embattled Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and the War on Drugs.


Leaving roaring crowds and the constant barrage of negative rhetoric from Chavez behind, Bush's largely symbolic stopover in Colombia was a breath of fresh air, despite the tight security, before he headed into what was perhaps the toughest part of his trip: Guatemala and Mexico.


Both countries suffer from Bush's inability to improve immigration legislation in the US. His recent decision to support funding for a security wall between the US and Mexico reverberated in the voices of amassed protesters whose demands were surprisingly echoed in the public position of both Guatemalan President Oscar Berger and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.


As much as 10 percent of Guatemala's population lives in the US, sending home an increasing amount of remittances every year. Bush's proposed immigration plan to allow for guest worker visas was likely a topic of heated discussion with Berger, who was said to be ready for the debate.


"Even in a country like Guatemala, which is so dependent on the United States, the president, Oscar Berger, was really willing to openly and publicly challenge Bush on the issue of immigration," Julia Sweig, director of Latin American Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a recently published interview.


Responding to Berger, Bush said he shared the Guatemalan president's sentiments but revealed his inability to effect change, saying no consensus in Congress meant no deal for immigration.


"If we don't have enough consensus, nothing is going to move out of the Senate," Bush said while in Guatemala, adding, "And if nothing moves out of the Senate, nothing is going to happen in the House."


So far, the Republicans have had little time to focus on building a working coalition in the Congress due to an environment of crumbling popularity for the Bush administration in the US.


Issues with Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis Libby and the mishandling of federal prosecutors by US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales weigh down on Republicans defending themselves from a Democratic offensive centered now on pulling US troops out of Iraq.


"What the immigration issue demonstrates - and so does trade, and so do drugs - the three components of our approach to the region, is how bound up US policy toward Latin America is in our own domestic politics," said Sweig.


She argues that Bush's hands are literally tied, but it's not an excuse. Policies toward Latin America can't even get out of the "starting gate" because "they depend so entirely on the political alignments in Congress," she said.


If nothing more, Bush's trip to Latin America proved Sweig absolutely correct.

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