Tale of two visits

Published : Apr 06, 2007 00:00 IST

A Mayan woman attends a cleansing ceremony at a temple in Guatemala that Bush visited, on March 15.-MOISES CASTILLO/AP

A Mayan woman attends a cleansing ceremony at a temple in Guatemala that Bush visited, on March 15.-MOISES CASTILLO/AP

George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez evoke contrasting responses during their recent tours around Latin America.

UNITED States President George W. Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were both on highly publicised tours around Latin America in the first fortnight of March. This was Bush's first extensive visit to Latin America since assuming office. During his presidency, U.S. influence in the continent, which was until recently described as America's backyard, has waned dramatically. Country after country in the region has elected progressive governments. Only a few small nations still follow U.S. diktats. The reaction on the street to Bush's visit was uniformly hostile, even in Colombia and Guatemala whose governments are friendly to Washington. Everywhere Bush went he was greeted by protesters who burned American flags and shouted "Gringo, go home".

Chavez's visit, described in the Latin American media as "the anti-empire tour", was a resounding success by all accounts. The Venezuelan President denied that he had timed his visit to upstage his U.S. counterpart. When Bush landed in Sao Paulo at the start of his five-nation tour, Chavez was in Argentina to accelerate the process of regional economic integration through the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA). Chavez addressed a huge rally organised by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. The group became internationally famous for its dogged efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the "disappearances" during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s.

In his Buenos Aires speech, Chavez attacked the U.S. President and his policies. Describing Bush's belated trip to Latin America as "an imperial excursion", Chavez emphasised the importance of regional economic and political integration as an alternative to the free trade policies proposed by the U.S. "Those who want to go directly to hell can follow capitalism. And those of us who want to build heaven here on earth will follow socialism," he told the appreciative crowd. As is his wont, Chavez did not hide his opinions on the U.S. President. He said that Bush no longer smelled of "sulfur" as he had become a "political cadaver with a 600 word vocabulary". In other words he was suggesting that the lame duck U.S. President, with his popularity sinking to abysmally low levels, did not have the capacity to stem the populist tide sweeping Latin American and the Caribbean.

Before the U.S. President's visit, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner predicted that efforts to divide the region would not succeed. After signing a slew of political and economic agreements with Chavez in Buenos Aires, Kirchner said that no outside power should be concerned "that our countries are becoming integrated". Venezuela and Argentina announced the creation of the Bank of the South, which is set to begin operations before the end of this year. The stated aim of the Bank is to build an alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. It will finance development projects from the international reserves of all participating states. The policies of the international financial institutions are despised throughout the region. The policies of economic liberalisation that the IMF/World Bank imposed on Latin America are acknowledged to have been spectacular failures.

One of the most important goals of the Bush visit was to wean the centre-left governments of Brazil and Uruguay away from the progressive bloc. The Bush administration is seeking to anoint Brazil as the leader of an anti-Chavez bloc in the region. However, the Brazilian government, though not in agreement with many of Chavez's initiatives including his plan for regional integration, has refused to play ball with the U.S. on key issues. The governments of the region have also to take into consideration the weight of public opinion.

While Chavez was greeted by record crowds, Bush encountered widespread protests. All the meetings that Bush held were in locations chosen carefully to keep the demonstrating crowds out of sight. A decoy presidential convoy was used during his visit to the Colombian capital, Bogot. In Sao Paulo, 10,000 protesters marched through the financial district. There were massive street protests in Mexico City too. In Guatemala, Mayan priests announced their decision to hold a purification ceremony at a historical site that Bush had visited.

Most commentators and observers of the Latin American scene are of the view that the Bush visit was timed badly. Besides West Asia, there is no other region where the policies of the U.S. government are so widely detested as in Latin America. The region experienced "pre-emptive warfare", illegal detentions and torture long before they became official U.S. policy. The economic blockade of Cuba and the frequent infringements on the sovereignty of other countries in the region are other important factors that have brought about their alienation from Washington. The invasion of Iraq and the U.S. decision to build a wall along the border with Mexico are emotive issues for many people in the region.

Another divisive issue is the confirmation of John Negroponte as U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary. As U.S. Ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, Negroponte was implicated in the activities of the right-wing death squads that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped to organise. Many people in the region feel that his appointment signals the return of similar U.S. skulduggery, including assassinations of political opponents and the subversion of governments opposed to U.S. hegemony. While Chavez has been heard describing Negroponte as a "killer", Negroponte made strong statements against Chavez as soon as he was appointed. Bush, for his part, has described Negroponte as his "kind of guy". A recent opinion poll conducted bv Latinobarmetro, which interviewed at least 1,000 people in 18 countries between October 3 and November 5, 2006, revealed that Bush is personally unpopular with 85 per cent of the population in Latin America.

Washington projected the Bush visit as a "goodwill tour" with the focus on poverty alleviation. However, there was no substantial increase in U.S. aid to the region. Currently, 40 per cent of U.S. aid goes to Colombia to fight left-wing guerillas and the drug trade. Chavez took the opportunity on his tour to emphasise that if the U.S. was serious about reversing inequality in Latin America, then it should withdraw troops from Iraq and "use that gigantic military budget for investments in food and health". Venezuela has used its oil revenues to provide cheap fuel, medical assistance and funds for education to needy states in the region such as Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. The IMF's lending to the region has fallen to a paltry $50 million.

Even those leaders perceived to be ideologically close to the U.S. President have refused to back him in his battle with the progressive forces under the leadership of Chavez. Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who shares Bush's free market ideology, has indicated his neutrality in the increasingly bitter face-off. In fact, he told the media during the Bush visit that Mexico was in the process of normalising diplomatic relations with Venezuela. (Relations between the two states were downgraded during the presidency of Vincente Fox, who left office last year.) Calderon chose to speak out against the Bush administration's policies on Cuba. He said that Washington should realise that there is a lot of suspicion about the U.S. and its motives in the region. The Mexican President was critical of the Bush administration's decision to construct a wall along their common border. The entire region was insulted by this decision, which is viewed as provocative and racist. Many Latin Americans wonder why the U.S. is not building a similar wall along its border with Canada.

Little progress was made during Bush's Brazil visit to secure a substantive agreement over the import of ethanol. The Brazilian government indicated that the U.S. must cease subsidising its own farmers before a deal could be clinched. The U.S. has closed its markets to the import of bio-fuels and subsidised its own agri-business giants to produce grain-based ethanol. Chavez criticised the rationale behind countries such as Brazil growing crops to fuel the cars and economies of rich developed nations.

"We would be using the fertile land that we have, the available water, technology, machinery, fertilizers and so on, to produce food, not for the people, but for the vehicles of the rich - this is something to think about," said Chavez in a speech he gave during his visit to Jamaica. He described Bush's ethanol diplomacy in Brazil as both "irrational and unethical". Suzanne Pereira Dos Santos of Brazil's Landless Workers Movement told a Western news agency that "Bush and his pals are trying to control the production of ethanol in Brazil".

Chavez's whirlwind tour of the region produced concrete results. In Bolivia, Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales signed an agreement to create an association of South American Gas Producing Countries, called OPEGASUR. They also signed an agreement to strengthen ALBA. Chavez pointed out that owing to ALBA more than half a million Latin Americans had received free eye surgery in less than two years. During his visit to Nicaragua, Chavez pledged to help the country construct an oil refinery with a capacity of 150,000 barrels a day at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion. Venezuela is already supplying oil to the country at a highly subsidised rate.

In a speech in Ciudad de Leon, Nicaragua's second largest city, Chavez said that there were "new winds blowing in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba that allow these countries to form an axis of popular forces, of progressive revolutionary and socialist governments, which cross the entire [South] American continent to consolidate the union of the people and to defeat the Empire and its new offensive". During his visit to Haiti, the most impoverished of Latin American nations, Chavez was given a rousing welcome by the people of the capital city, Port Au Prince. During the Chavez visit, cooperation agreements were signed between Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti. These included the creation of a $1 billion fund, which will be used to purchase equipment to construct housing for the poor and to deploy Cuban medical personnel in Haiti.

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