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President Bush Hopes to Re-energize Relations in Latin America

March 8, 2007 at 5:15 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The president’s Latin American trip comes seven years after candidate George W. Bush campaigned on a promise to put Latin America at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Those who ignore Latin America do not fully understand America itself. And those who ignore our hemisphere do not fully understand American interests.

MARGARET WARNER: His first foreign trip as president was to Mexico, and his first White House state dinner was for then-Mexican President Vicente Fox.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Some have described the century just passed as the American century. Now we look forward. We have a chance to build a century of the Americas, in which all our people, north and south, find the blessings of liberty.

MARGARET WARNER: But after 9/11, the war on terror took priority, and Latin America took a distant back seat.

Now, with a growing number of leftists being elected to Latin American presidencies and with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez trying to rally them into an anti-U.S. bloc, President Bush has turned his attention back to the region.

This morning, he flew to Sao Paulo, Brazil, the first stop on a five-nation tour. He’ll also visit Uruguay, to promote free trade; Colombia, where the U.S. is spending billions to fight drugs; Guatemala, where a leftist candidate is running for president; and Mexico, where immigration is the dominant issue.

Left-leaning presidents already lead two of those countries: President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and President Tabare Vazquez Rosas in Uruguay.

Earlier this week, Mr. Bush acknowledged that the region’s desperate poverty had turned many Latin American voters against U.S.-style free trade and free market economics.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The fact is that tens of millions of our brothers and sisters to the south have seen little improvement in their daily lives, and this has led some to question the value of democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: And he promised the U.S. would help address the huge income gap in the region.

Notably missing from the president’s itinerary is oil-rich Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, has vowed to build a socialist utopia. Chavez regularly lambastes the Bush administration, even calling President Bush “the devil” before the U.N. General Assembly last September.

And on his television show last weekend, Chavez again accused the Bush administration of plotting to kill him.

HUGO CHAVEZ, President of Venezuela (through translator): They have assigned special units of the CIA, true assassins, who go around, not only here in Venezuela, in Central America, in South America.

MARGARET WARNER: Bush officials have leveled plenty of criticism at Chavez, too.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: I do believe that the president of Venezuela is really, really destroying his own country.

MARGARET WARNER: Chavez has nationalized U.S.-owned electricity and telephone companies in Venezuela. And he’s threatening to take control of four big oil development projects being pursued there by U.S. and foreign companies.

He’s also using Venezuela’s vast oil revenues to spread money and subsidized oil and gas to neighboring countries, from Cuba to Argentina. Chavez is even bidding for public support in the United States, offering subsidized heating oil to poor Americans through the Venezuelan-owned oil company, Citgo.

AMERICAN CITIZEN: I thank Venezuela for what they do for the poor here. They’re the only ones who give this.

MARGARET WARNER: Chavez is greeting the Bush trip by orchestrating anti-U.S. protests across Latin America, and Chavez himself will lead a huge rally tomorrow evening in Argentina, while Mr. Bush is in neighboring Uruguay.

U.S. responding to changes?

Peter DeShazo
Former State Department Official
One of the key points in the message is going to be that the United States shares the concerns that people on the street in Latin America have about poverty, and about job creation, and about inequality.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on President Bush's trip, we turn to Peter DeShazo, a former career Foreign Service officer, who was a deputy assistant secretary of state in President Bush's first term. He's now director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

And Miguel Tinker-Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and co-author of "Venezuela: Hugo Chavez and the Decline of an Exceptional Democracy." Born in Venezuela, he holds Venezuelan and U.S. citizenship.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, Ambassador DeShazo, what do you think is behind the timing of the Bush trip?

PETER DESHAZO, Center for Strategic and International Studies: The timing of the trip, I think, is to respond to the widespread criticism that the United States has not been engaged in Latin America since 9/11.

It comes after a cycle of important elections in the region. There were 11 elections in about 13 months, and the White House has said now it's time to go on the road and to take a message of U.S. re-engagement with the region to the Latin Americans.

We already see that one of the key points in the message is going to be that the United States shares the concerns that people on the street in Latin America have about poverty, and about job creation, and about inequality.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that the way you see it, Professor, an acknowledgment of perhaps neglect of the region?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS, Pomona College: Not necessarily. I think that, in many ways, it is response to the electoral decisions that happened in the last year-and-a-half, where we've seen either the election of new left, center-left presidents or we've seen the re-election of individuals like Lula and Chavez.

Because for most Latin Americans, the notion that the U.S. administration is concerned about their social conditions tends to ring hollow, particularly since they have been at the receiving end of what they perceive to be a very narrow focus on free trade, neo-liberal economic policy, and really not a concern for the central issues that have been affecting the region.

So I think it's a different kind of perspective that we see coming out of the region. And I think that's what begins to trouble the Bush administration, that the inroads that have been made and, more importantly, that these inroads have taken place and are beginning to shape how Latin Americans forge their own sense of identity, their own foreign policy, in many cases not including the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador, is Latin America charting a new course? Is there a new trend there that is much more left-leaning?

PETER DESHAZO: I think that there's a lot of misperception about the idea that Latin America is lurching to the left. And the fact that there are people on the political spectrum who are leftists who are elected is of no concern to the United States as long as they're people who will rule democratically and that we can work with.

And this is the case in Chile; it's the case in Uruguay, where the president is visiting, in Brazil. There are also people on the trip who represent much more conservative tendencies, President Calderon in Mexico, President Uribe in Colombia.

I think the message that's conveyed there is that, if you govern democratically, we can work with you very well.

Chavez's presence

Miguel Tinker-Salas
Pomona College
Through a series of electoral means, the elections of individuals who have, in many ways, come to power by criticizing and rejecting what has been perceived as a very inequitable economic system

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, staying with you for a minute, that -- has this Chavez-Washington tension been overblown? Or is there, in fact, though, a battle for the hearts and minds of the people and the leaders of Latin America between them?

PETER DESHAZO: The presence of Chavez in the region is a real factor, and certainly it's something that the United States takes into consideration. The president has said that he's making this trip not in any kind of a response to Chavez, but to lay out the U.S. agenda, to express U.S. concerns about issues that Chavez also claims that he's addressing, but in very different ways.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that, in fact, there is a bit of a response to Chavez and his growing influence in this trip?

PETER DESHAZO: I think certainly that Chavez is a factor in everybody's thinking in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, how do you see the Chavez factor and whether he's a threat, a real threat, or just a sort of irritant to the United States and its interests?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: I don't necessarily think of the whole entire Latin America as being controlled by Hugo Chavez. This is a process that is taking place in many South American countries and also Central American countries.

That is, we've had, through a series of electoral means, the elections of individuals who have, in many ways, come to power by criticizing and rejecting what has been perceived as a very inequitable economic system, and this is the promotion of free trade that has taken a toll on agricultural production, that has dislocated the economy in many countries.

So I don't think it's just Chavez. It's very simple to put it all on Chavez, but the reality is these conditions are real conditions for Bolivian miners, these are real conditions for Ecuadorian indigenous people, these are real conditions for Brazilian homeless and without land populations.

And these are the real issues that are fomenting the kind of political change. And these aren't radical insurgents taking to the hills, as we saw in the '60s and '70s, but rather political movements that are taking the challenge of taking state power, and winning through democratic means, and charting an independent course that, as we've seen in the Cochabamba Declaration in Bolivia, where all the presidents of South America began to chart a European Union-style agreement.

We see that in the Mercosur, the South American common market, where they begin to chart economic policy, that, again, primarily focuses on Latin American concerns and interests.

Dealing with new economic systems

Peter DeShazo
Former State Department Official
There's certainly skepticism in the region. And the trip alone will not convince people that the United States is fully re-engaged or that it shares the agenda that many Latin Americans have.

MARGARET WARNER: But just following up on what Ambassador DeShazo said, do you think that, in and of itself, is troubling to the Bush administration or should be? Or, in fact, is the ambassador correct, in your view, when he says, as long as these leaders, even if they pursue more left-leaning economic policies, are not sort of radically anti-American and govern democratically, that's not of concern?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: I think it is of concern. We saw that clearly what some people are calling a demonstration effect. Just look at the campaign that was waged against Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua by U.S. administration officials and the ambassador to Nicaragua.

MARGARET WARNER: In his recent elections?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: The recent elections, in which they were threatening to cut off aid, to cut off remittances, pressure being applied to Correa in Ecuador, pressure being applied to other governments.

And I think there is a concern that Latin Americans have begun a process that doesn't necessarily center U.S. at the core of their foreign policy and have begun, in many ways, to distinguish themselves, because, again, as I listen to President Bush's speech talking about our American or Latin American brothers, that rings hollow to many Latin Americans who see this trip as mostly symbolic and really light on substance.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that ring hollow?

PETER DESHAZO: There's certainly skepticism in the region. And the trip alone will not convince people that the United States is fully re-engaged or that it shares the agenda that many Latin Americans have.

What's important is that there be follow-up, that the kinds of programs that the president announced in areas such as education, which hold out a real opportunity to engage with the Latin American people and to show that we're interested in their empowerment, to allow them to get better jobs, to get out of poverty, and to be able to compete in a globalized world economy, because that's going to be the reality.

These are the kinds of messages that the people in Latin America want to hear, that the United States shares their concerns, understands their concerns.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see in the president's slightly new pitch this week, emphasizing the poverty, the social injustice, a shift and one that reflects an acknowledgement that the Washington model and that just the free trade, free market economics, has not delivered for the poor?

PETER DESHAZO: I think clearly there's -- the systems have not delivered for a lot of people in the region. That's one of the reasons why there's been a trend towards populist politics.

They feel that traditional representative democracy hasn't delivered the goods for them. And there are lots of reasons for this that I can't -- I'm not going to go into now.

But the fact is, it is a reality of perception, and it's something that the United States has to take into consideration.

Hopes for the trip

Miguel Tinker-Salas
Pomona College
It's going to be a very difficult situation, and long term one wonders what a president who is in a lame-duck situation, who has very difficult poll ratings in the U.S., and also extremely low ratings in Latin America, can accomplish on this trip.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor, briefly, if you might, what, in a concrete sense, can the administration actually hope to achieve in this trip?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: I think substantially very little. The reality is that there are already protests in the streets of Sao Paolo and Rio. There are protests already in Bogota.

There is a tremendous resistance because of the perception that this is something more symbolic than substantive. Obviously, there are issues of alternative energy that he will discuss with -- President Bush will discuss with Lula. There are questions of free trade he will attempt to promote.

But in each one of these countries, he's going to confront an emboldened leadership that, in many ways, will also be asking more serious questions, questions about immigration, questions about dropping U.S. subsidies on agricultural products, questions about tariffs on ethanol imported into the U.S., so that it's not going to be an easy trip.

It's going to be a very difficult situation, and long term one wonders what a president who is in a lame-duck situation, who has very difficult poll ratings in the U.S., and also extremely low ratings in Latin America, can accomplish on this trip.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, Mr. Ambassador, listening to the litany that the professor just gave us, would you say that the president is going to have a hard time delivering himself, whether it's on trade or immigration, without the Congress? I mean, that he doesn't really have -- he's not in the position to really deliver.

PETER DESHAZO: Well, there are key issues at stake, the extension of trade preferences for the Andean countries, which is really important in job creation in those countries, and the manufacturing sector and others, very, very important.

Ratification of free trade agreements with Peru and with Colombia, and then Panama waiting in the wings, these are important, too, and will send a strong signal to the region that the United States is engaged with the region or is not.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador DeShazo and Professor Tinker-Salas, thank you both.

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: Thank you.

PETER DESHAZO: Thank you.