In Latin America visit, Bush must listen, not preach
March 6, 2007
President Bush would do well to make his visit to Latin America a "listening tour" -- especially after the fiasco of his last venture south of the border.
When he traveled to the Summit of the Americas in Argentina in 2005, Bush revealed how out of touch he was with the realities of the region.
At that time, Argentineans and Bolivians had just seen their economies decimated by the very policies Bush was proposing. Yet the U.S. team seemed beyond insensitive to that fact.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, however, picked up the theme and whipped up 25,000 protesters into an anti-Bush frenzy in a stadium on the other side of town. Chavez held up a shovel and declared that he was going to bury the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. The trade talks have been six feet under ever since.
This time, the White House has planned the president's itinerary and agenda more carefully. Bush plans to spend a day each in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Uruguay, and the last two days of the tour in Mexico.
Even though he's not visiting countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua -- countries where voters elected strong left nationalist leaders -- Bush should expect massive protests, especially since he's still pushing free trade policies that have done a lot of damage to the region.
Uruguay's largest trade union has called for a general strike on the day of Bush's arrival.
In Guatemala, social, humanitarian and human rights organizations have declared Bush "persona non grata" and also vowed to hold public protests.
Latin America has changed from the days when U.S.-backed dictators would squelch expressions of dissent. Since the return of peace and democracy in the 1990s, people are electing leaders they believe will bring about change.
Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua come from leftist traditions and are increasing the role of government to improve people's lives. Most are critical of U.S.-imposed unregulated free market economic policies, and all are against the U.S. war in Iraq.
To become relevant to the new Latin American political landscape, Bush should just listen.
In Brazil, he should learn from the Lula government's innovative programs to eliminate hunger, including food assistance programs that also support small farmers. He could also learn from Brazil's renowned success in lowering HIV-AIDS rates through effective education and prevention programs.
In Uruguay, he should hear how the government there has amended its constitution to guarantee water as a human right for all its citizens.
Elsewhere, he should hear from those who have been directly affected by U.S. policies. For example, in Colombia, he should meet with farmers whose food crops have been destroyed by the aerial fumigation that is part of an antiquated U.S. drug policy.
And he should discuss with Mexican factory workers why, despite the promises of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), their jobs are now moving to China.
When Latin Americans feel that the United States is genuinely interested in forging positive relationships with their countries, then cooperation will be an option. Until then, Bush may come back with nothing but some souvenirs --
and the echoes of protests in his ears.
Nadia Martinez was born and raised in Panama. She co-directs the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network (SEEN), a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org). She can be reached at email@example.com.