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President Bush’s Latin American Tour

March 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: President Bush began his four-day trip to Latin America in Monterrey, Mexico.

Friday, at a UN Conference on Development, he pledged a 50 percent increase in U.S. foreign aid. From there, it was on to Peru to meet South American leaders, and then to El Salvador for a summit on Central America.

The Peruvian capital of Lima was on high alert for the president’s visit, which came three days after a car-bomb attack killed nine Peruvians outside the U.S. embassy. The Marxist group Shining Path, which carried out many attacks in the 1990s, is suspected.

At a press conference Saturday with President Alejandro Toledo, Mr. Bush pledged to fight terrorism throughout the region, saying violence and poverty are linked.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re fighting a new kind of war, and we’re strong allies in that war. And when we win, our peoples will be better off. You can’t alleviate poverty if there’s terror in your neighborhood. It’s impossible to achieve what we want if terrorists run free.

RAY SUAREZ: The presidents also discussed terrorism with Colombia’s Andres Pastrana. Pastrana’s government recently stepped up its war on leftist rebels who control the drug trade. The White House has asked Congress for more money to assist in the effort. Toledo yesterday also underscored the region-wide war on drugs.

PRESIDENT ALEJANDRO TOLEDO, Peru (Translated): We have to share more information about narco-trafficking. We need to develop a strategy between producing and consuming countries. We have an enemy in common.

RAY SUAREZ: On the issue of trade, Toledo– an economist– said Washington has been slow to renew its free trade pact with its Andean nations. Mr. Bush then blamed the inaction on the democratic- controlled U.S. Senate, which has yet to act on a renewal.

The trade issue also followed Mr. Bush to El Salvador, where Central American leaders pushed for a low-tariff deal for the entire hemisphere. American domestic politics surfaced as well.

On Saturday, California assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, said the president’s trip to Latin America was an “orchestrated strategy to curry favor with Latino voters.”

The president defended his trip and its agenda during an appearance with President Francisco Flores.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I firmly believe that the best policy for the United States is to pay attention to our friends, is to promote trade.

Trade produces liberty and freedom. And I, you know, sometimes in Washington, DC, people cannot get rid of old habits, which is petty politics, Mr. President.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Bush returned home last night, and pronounced his trip a success.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on President Bush’s trip, we get three perspectives.

Arturo Valenzuela is former National Security Council staff during the Clinton Administration. He’s director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. Ana Eiras is Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a non-profit research organization. And, Andres Oppenheimer is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for The Miami Herald. His most recent book, Ojos Vendados, or Blindfolded Eyes, is about corruption in Latin America.

Well, Ana Eiras, let’s start with you. Is Latin America still struggling to get out of the shadow of last fall’s terrorist attacks?

ANA EIRAS: Yes, and I think actually that what you find in Latin America after all this thing with terrorism happened to the U.S. is a strong anti-American sentiment, especially at the level of the ordinary citizen.

Many of them, before President Bush visited Lima, for example, were outside on the streets claiming that he was going to bring terrorists or terrorism to their country.

And part of the reason — I think there are two reasons for that. One of them is the whole liberalization trend that we saw in the 1990s that, in fact, what it was patching liberalization policies like privatization, liberalization of prices, of the foreign direct investment code, but then with no strengthening of the rule of law and still keeping large bureaucracies, which in turn was promoting a lot of corruption, which they couldn’t get rid of.

But for the ordinary Latin, that is what capitalism is, and that model didn’t bring them any good results or any good delivery.

The second reason is I think based on two very unpopular U.S. moves, which was trade-wise, recently lift the barriers that they put on steel and now the whole agricultural bill that has been passed in the Senate and in the House– and it’s being discussed in conference right now.

And so this sends a signal — a contradictory signal that is U.S. Is all the time speaking about free markets and promoting their model but at the same time they put barriers to trade.

And I think this combination of a failed model of capitalism plus the U.S. contradiction on trades is part of the reason for which you see all this anti-American sentiment.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, she is talking about a resentment against the United States at the grass roots level.

Is that a big split from what you heard from the leaders in these countries as you traveled?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Not necessarily, Ray. They wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, but you do hear a lot of complaints.

I spent the whole week in Monterrey at the summit whereas you know President Bush pledged an extra $5 billion for the poor, for the poorest countries in the world. And most of the presidents I talked to said, well, that’s great for the poorest countries in the world, but what about the middle-income countries? What about the poor and the middle-income countries?

In Latin America, you have a lot of middle income countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, whose populations have more poor than many of the poor countries in the world. In other words, you probably have more poor in Brazil than in small poverty stricken African countries that are going to be the recipients of this aid.

So, the presidents I talked to told me two things: One, what about the medium income countries which are not going to get part of this $5 billion and second, as Ana was just saying, they say ‘we want trade not aid.’

And one of the figures they throw constantly is that if the rich countries, that is the U.S. and Europe, lifted their trade barriers, they say that developing countries could export $130 billion more of their products. And that’s a lot of money. By comparison the whole financial foreign aid that the U.S. And Europe are giving now is $50 billion. So we’re talking more than twice that money.

So, in other words, they say trade not aid, do what you preach. If you preach free trade, practice it.

RAY SUAREZ: Arturo Valenzuela, that puts me in mind of the newspapers in several countries cautioning their own populations against thinking that Santa Claus was coming. They lowered expectations for the Bush trip. Why did the president go there and make a point of visiting Mexico, Central America and South America?

ARTURO VALENZUELA: Well, from the point of view of the administration that was an attempt on the part of President Bush to reengage with Latin America.

Latin America was supposed to be at the top of the foreign policy agenda. It fell by the wayside partly through inaction and partly through the Sept. 11 events. And this was an attempt to put it back on top again.

President Bush had worked very heavily with Mexico, but generally speaking had neglected much of the rest of the region. Most dramatically perhaps was the administration’s inability to really focus on the crisis in Argentina, which really became much more serious during this period of time. So, the president went to these three countries.

Why these three countries? Well he wanted to go to one country close to the United States, Mexico. Then he needed to check the box with the Central American country and then also check the box with a South American country.

In some ways this is appreciated by people in the region but in some ways also there’s a certain degree of resentment.

Why did he only spend such a short period of time, two days in Mexico and two days really on the road, and why did he not, for example, engage one of the more important countries in the region, Brazil, with which the United States has over the long haul a very significant security and foreign policy interest. He was trying to do what? He was trying to promote democracy, promote trade and promote security. I think he made probably more comments about the latter than the first two issues.

I agree with Andres and with Ana that he really went quite empty handed when it came to the trade issues which are the things that the Latin Americans most care about now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, does the emphasis on terrorism from American policy-makers provide an opening, Ana Eiras, for Latin countries that are dealing with their own insurgencies, terrorists, rebel groups, to reconnect with the American government?

ANA EIRAS: Well, this is my perception for just traveling in the region. They certainly understand why President Bush is out reaching them. They understand why the U.S. now needs a coalition.

They also understand… they don’t… like if you ask a Peruvian, they didn’t like to live with terrorism around them at all. But the question is, how do you most effectively stop a trend of terrorism?

I mean it’s clearly that terrorists can operate in environments where there’s a weak rule of law, where there’s no… there’s poor limit on what they can do, and where they can, for example, bribe officials, law enforcement officers, et cetera, so that they can do their job better.

So I think the economic component, it’s very important. I think that until you… you do not address that part, you can’t expect much help from them forming a coalition against terrorism. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Andres, the president did try to link economics with security, didn’t he?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Yes, he did, but you have to understand that there are two countries in South America that care deeply about terrorism. That’s Colombia and Peru.

But in most others the issue is trade; the issue is poverty; the issue is unemployment. So there is a certain disconnect.

At the same time, you have one time now where you have like four simultaneous crises in Latin America. You have a very bad crisis in Argentina. You have a lingering crisis in Colombia. You have a worsening crisis in Venezuela. Then you have the crisis of Cuba, which is always there and can explode at any time.

For the first time in many years, there aren’t any strong Latin American leaders to help the United States. Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago, President Clinton had President Menim in Argentina. He was helping the U.S. to put out fires all over the place. He also worked as a Castro antidote in the region. He’s no longer there. He’s a very discredited and out of the picture.

And Brazil, which was recently the country which helped the U.S. put out fires in South America, is also out of the picture because the Brazilian President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is a lame duck. He is going to hold elections in a couple months. He’ll be out of office. He’s in no position to start any big initiative.

So I think one of the reasons President Bush did this trip for was to try to find new friends, to try to do some propaganda, if you want to, to try to help Mexican President Fox and Peruvian President Toledo and President Francisco Flores in El Salvador to become somewhat of helpers or firefighters to help the U.S. deal with these crises that may get out of hand.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you think of that idea?

ARTURO VALENZUELA: Well, I think that there’s a lot of merit to that. I agree with Andres that there is sort of an absence of forceful leaders although I think President Ricardo Logos in Chile could really pretty much play that role.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s funny to hear three Latin American experts bemoaning the fact that there is so few strong men left in Latin America.

ARTURO VALENZUELA: The question is not really strong men. The question is whether or not you’ve got strong democratic leaders at this particular point.

We’re in an election cycle. President Pastrana is leaving. President Cardoso is leaving Except for Fox and really Lagos in Chile, the rest of the leaders are leading countries with severe and difficult problems.

The United States needs to be able to engage these leaders and needs to be able to go beyond the rhetoric of security and actually try to respond to the demands of the region.

I would come back to the question of, is the United States really willing to open its own markets as it has argued all along toward the Latin Americans? Ana was right in saying that it sent a very bad signal when the administration, for example, went backwards in terms of steel.

It also went backwards in getting the Trade Promotion Authority by putting some additional restrictions on textiles. That affects the region as a whole. The people in the region need desperately jobs. The United States needs to help in that regard much more.

RAY SUAREZ: Arturo Valenzuela, guests, thank you all.