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Bush Heads South

WASHINGTON—President Bush’s trip to Latin America starting this week will, for very different reasons, lift the spirits of friends and foes alike. Those who fear that Latin America is increasingly irrelevant will welcome the attention. Those under pressure from followers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will welcome the respite that a high-profile visitor brings. Those threatened by a protectionist Congress in the U.S. will welcome verbal reassurances. And those who thrive on anti-Americanism will welcome the chance to “strut and fret their hour upon the stage.”

Latin Americans who think the world cares too much about the Middle East, China and India have only themselves to blame. Unless you threaten world peace, the best way to be relevant is to emerge as a success story. Since Latin America seems content with its middle-of-the-table status, it’s no surprise it is attracting just one-sixth of the direct investment that flows into developing countries these days.

As for Chavez, Latin Americans—again—have only themselves to blame for letting him cut a larger-than-life figure. In 2005, at the hemispheric summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, 29 countries supported the idea of a Free Trade Area of the Americas, yet five countries led by Venezuela were able to block it—despite the fact that internal trade among those five amounted to just $26 billion, compared to $1.5 trillion in the rest of the hemisphere.

The lesson of the free trade fiasco was that leadership, not numbers, is what counts when facing Chavez. The failure of leadership in Latin America today includes the powerful Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has shed his Marxist past but panders to his Venezuelan friend. When I asked him a few months ago about his friendship with Chavez, Lula couched his answer in diplomatic language, explaining that one needs to respect other countries’ internal policies.

Given these conditions, can Bush accomplish anything substantial during his trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico? At best, his mere presence will remind people that the left-wing “tilt” is not the real story coming out of the region. The real story is the gradual modernization of a good part of the left. Brazil and Uruguay are governed by leftists who share liberal democratic values and broadly support the market economy. By negotiating a trade agreement with Washington, Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez is defying his next-door neighbor, anti-American Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.

The other countries on Bush’s itinerary are all governed by the center-right. That crowd was feeling pushed against the wall by the perception that the left was sweeping the region, but Felipe Calderon’s victory in Mexico and his assertive language in favor of globalization are giving moderates new confidence. Bush’s presence will certainly reinforce the thinking that the battle for Latin Americans’ soul has not yet been won by Chavez and the loony left.

That, I suggest, will be the only significant outcome of this trip, because Bush is not in a position to give his interlocutors anything more tangible.

In the case of Brazil, for all the talk about a joint push for an ethanol revolution, the U.S. visitor has no intention of repealing the 54 percent tariff on ethanol imports, even if such a move would probably be the only way to make good on his aim to replace 20 percent of U.S. oil consumption with biofuels by 2017.

As for Uruguay’s trade aspirations, the Bush administration is having trouble persuading the U.S. Congress to pass the free trade agreements recently signed with Panama, Colombia and Peru. Also, the president’s authority to negotiate deals directly is due to expire in four months.

In Colombia, apart from passage of the FTA, President Uribe would like more aid for his fight against the narco-guerrillas. However, a protectionist U.S. Congress and the recent scandal in which Uribe has been (unfairly) blamed for links between right-wing paramilitary groups and the political establishment make Colombia’s case a hard sell in Washington these days.

Finally, in Guatemala and especially Mexico, there is only one thing Bush could really do to make his hosts’ day—immigration reform. Mexican President Calderon has been courting U.S. favor since he came to office by leading a tough anti-drug campaign. And yet Bush, who probably has the right instinct on immigration, has so far been unable to move his party on the issue.

This trip will be about good will, redressing the perception that Chavez dominates the region, and little more. Not a bad thing, considering that it is about time Latin America assumed its own responsibilities.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow at The Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.Sc. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

From Alvaro Vargas Llosa
GLOBAL CROSSINGS: Immigration, Civilization, and America
The erosion of national boundaries—and even the idea of the nation state—is already underway as people become ever more inter-connected across borders. A jungle of myth, falsehood and misrepresentation dominates the debate over immigration. The reality is that the economic contributions of immigration far outweigh the costs.