Cool Bush welcome seen at Latin talks Print
Friday, 04 November 2005 00:00
Boston Globe
November 4, 2005
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff


BOGOT? -- Leaders of every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba are meeting in the Argentine beach town of Mar del Plata today and tomorrow for a long-anticipated Summit of the Americas, which was supposed to inaugurate a free-trade bloc to rival the European Union and the pan-Asian partnerships.

Instead, the 1994 plan to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas by the end of this year failed miserably, and the United States and its neighbors could not even agree on the agenda for the summit. Rather than unity, the gathering is expected to highlight divisions between Washington and its southern neighbors over how to address persistent poverty in the region.

President Bush may have hoped for a foreign policy boost by attending the high-profile gathering, but he is more likely to receive a rude greeting from his grandstanding leftist nemesis, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and from tens of thousands of protesters suspicious of his agenda.

Across town from the fancy hotel hosting the main event, a rival ''Summit of the People" is underway at a dilapidated sports complex, and anti-Bush demonstrations are planned, led by the Argentine soccer legend, Diego Maradona.

''The Summit of the People says no to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, no to external debt, no to the war in Iraq, and no to poverty," said Juan Gonzalez, an Argentine union leader and organizer of the rival gathering.

When the Summit of the Americas started 11 years ago in Miami, hopes were high for economic integration and political cooperation among allies. ''Years later, the US and Latin America are at the lowest point in their relationship since the Cold War," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington.

Bush has made mollifying statements in recent days about upcoming elections in Bolivia, and about plans for a nuclear power plant in Venezuela -- two countries Washington has flagged as leftist threats. And he has played up his friendship with the leftist Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio ''Lula" da Silva.

But softer rhetoric notwithstanding, Bush faces a tough crowd among counterparts who view him as a unilateralist leader insensitive to regional priorities, and as blinded by a Cold Warrior mentality. He is expected to come away from the summit empty-handed.

Many Latin countries resent the US emphasis on the wars on terrorism and drugs, to the exclusion of social development issues. There is widespread disillusionment that the United States did little to bail out Argentina during its economic collapse in 2001 -- a perceived abandonment that has led many countries to conclude that they must fend for themselves, or to look for more reliable leadership under oil-rich, socialist-leaning Venezuela or Brazil, the region's most-populous country, and its biggest economy.

Bush's first overseas trip as president was to Mexico, where he vowed to change US immigration law, a goal he has been unable to push through the US Congress. He advocated free trade from Alaska to Argentina, but has refused to eliminate subsidies for US farmers that Latin nations, especially Brazil, a giant in agriculture, regard as unfair and hypocritical. He champions democracy, but his administration is accused of having conspired behind the scenes to undermine elected governments in Venezuela and Haiti.

''Bush will pass into history as the US president who started his administration pledging stronger relations with Latin America, but has failed to accomplish anything he promised," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a professor at the Instituto Autonomo de Mexico, and editor of the Spanish edition of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Latinobarometro, a long-term opinion study in 18 countries led by Chile, released a report last week finding that Latin Americans rank Bush at 4.8 on a scale of 10 -- lower than Chavez, but higher than Cuba's Fidel Castro. It also found that 61 percent of Latin Americans have ''little or no confidence" in the United States.

Many attribute Latin America's disaffection to the widely held belief in Latin America that free-market changes led by Washington contributed to unemployment almost doubling across the region, from 5.7 percent in 1991 to 10 percent by last year, according to the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America.

After opening markets, privatizing industry, and promoting austerity, 128 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, one-fourth of the region's population, still live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

A Venezuelan, Ricardo Hausmann, a Harvard professor and one of the founders in 1989 of the ''Washington Consensus" aimed at spurring growth through open markets, has criticized the outcome as one of ''deep reforms, lousy growth."

Graciela R?mer, a sociologist and public opinion analyst interviewed by telephone from Buenos Aires, said a profound frustration, highlighted by the summit's themes of jobs and better governance, is ''why for 20 years we've been talking about the same things and the problems are getting worse."

Current anti-American feeling, she said, has nothing to do with ''nationalism of the 1970s -- it's tied to the failure of policies implemented in the region in the 1990s."

Rank-and-file Latin Americans are not alone to be affected by the growing gap between rich and poor who have taken a dim view of the United States and its leadership. A survey released this week by Zogby International, the US-based polling group, found that just 17 percent of business, government, and academic leaders in six Latin American nations had given Bush a positive rating.

A major factor in Washington's plummeting influence in the region is ''a sense that the US was hypocritical in the way it promoted human rights and democracy [until] US security was in the picture," Hakim said. He added that anti-Americanism in Latin America ''only resurfaced with the war in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo scandals" involving detainee abuse, Hakim said.

Even in Colombia, where the United States has invested more than $3 billion in the war on drugs, and whose leadership is perhaps most aligned with the United States, observers say they expect nothing to come out of the summit.

''Bush's head is in Iraq and the United States, not in the problems of this hemisphere," said Mauricio Cardenas, executive director of Fedesarrollo, a social science research institute in Bogota. ''Free trade was the motor driving these summits, but now that's paralyzed . . . and Latin America is not the priority of the US at this moment."

Correspondent Brian Byrnes contributed from Mar del Plata, Argentina.