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How George W. Bush Unified Latin America

Che rides again (on a mountain bike).

| Sat Mar. 25, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Late last year, voters overwhelmingly elected former coca-grower Evo Morales, the founder of Bolivia's "Movement Toward Socialism" party, who fancies himself a "nightmare" for the Bush administration. Then, in January, Chilean voters chose socialist candidate Michele Bachelet, a torture victim of the Pinochet regime, as the nation's first woman president. Leftists now rule as well in Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina, and are leading in upcoming elections in both Peru and Mexico, the region's electoral grand prize. Even recycled Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega -- "a hoodlum," according to Roger Noriega, formerly the U.S.'s top Latin America official -- appears poised for a comeback when Nicaraguan voters go to the polls in November.

Though Latin America's national borders won't melt away anytime soon, Che's vision of pan-Latin cooperation has already begun to materialize. Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina recently announced a $20 billion plan to build a trans-national gas pipeline through the Amazon. Chile has opened dialogue with landlocked Bolivia, easing a long-simmering feud over seaport access that stretches back more than a century. Cuba, that tropical bête noire of the White House, still uses doctor diplomacy and sends physicians all over the region -- only now, it receives billions of dollars worth of Venezuelan oil in return. And Mercosur, a South American common market dominated by Brazil, has emerged as a rival to the faltering U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Mercosur member states blocked ratification of the FTAA at the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Argentina. When Bush arrived to deliver a speech at the conference, he was greeted by mobs of angry street protestors who burned American flags, a Burger King, and unflattering effigies in his likeness.

"Fascist Bush!" they chanted, "you are the terrorist!"

Fencing Off the "Backyard"?

Bush's overwhelming unpopularity in Latin America is especially disappointing given that he put Latin American relations at the top of his foreign-policy agenda after taking office. No other U.S. president had gone to Latin America for his first visit abroad, and even after 9/11, Bush maintained that the United States "has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico." At every turn, he'd trot out his twangy Spanish in order to burnish his Latin cred.

Since then, Latin America has only drifted further south. Support for the U.S. war in Iraq is notably abysmal. Only a handful of countries in the region backed the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein and all were minor players with the exception of Colombia, the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. That Washington is willing to spend lavishly on drug eradication in the Andean region but little on development or public health has not been lost on the new ascendant left, either.

In a recent Zogby poll, fewer than 20% of Latin American elites (typically the most politically conservative voters in the region) gave Bush a favorable approval rating. Only 6% said Bush's policies were better than those of his predecessors.

Some analysts have attributed Latin America's political shift to U.S. foreign policy negligence, arguing that, because the Bush administration is so consumed with Iraq, American officials are now incapable of wielding effective diplomatic influence in the region.

"After 9/11, Washington effectively lost interest in Latin America," writes Peter Hakim, President of Inter-American Dialogue, in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs. "Since then, the attention the United States has paid to the region has been sporadic and narrowly targeted at particularly troubling or urgent situations."

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