Simon Scott Plummer
News Telegraph Bulletin
March 05, 2007
President George W Bush embarks this week on a tour of South America in an attempt to revive his stalled regional foreign policy.
When Mr Bush took office he declared the continent the focus of his foreign policy. However, the cataclysmic events of September 11 forced the White House on to a different path.
Now, with the war in Iraq dragging on and his presidency running out of time, Mr Bush is attempting to finish what he started with his first foreign tour, to Mexico, in February 2001.
A recent poll found that a small majority of respondents in Brazil and Mexico, two of the countries the President will visit, judged America's role in world affairs as mainly negative. But these figures rose to 85 and 80 per cent respectively when it came to how Iraq had been handled.
These high disapproval ratings have been grist to the mill of Hugo Chávez, who, since surviving a coup attempt in 2002, has emerged as the rhetorical scourge of Washington, backing up his words with cheap oil exports and military expenditure which, according to the Pentagon, has totalled $4.3 billion over the past two years, the highest in the region.
Mr Bush has not explicitly thrown down the gauntlet to Mr Chávez by undertaking his Latin American trip, which between March 8 and 14 will also take him to Uruguay, Colombia, and Guatemala. However, the choice of countries can be seen as an attempt to isolate the Venezuelan president. For his part, Mr Chávez has no doubt that this is Washington's intention and has taken up the challenge by agreeing to lead an anti-Bush rally in Buenos Aires while the president is in neighbouring Uruguay. A similar demonstration took place in the Argentinian resort of Mar del Plata in 2005, when Mr Bush tried unsuccessfully to revive the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
In Brazil, Mr Bush will be courting the moderate Left-wing leader of the region's economic giant. Of particular interest to Luíz Inacio Lula da Silva is the development of a Latin American and Caribbean market for ethanol, the fuel of which Brazil is the world's largest and most efficient producer.
The two leaders plan to sign a memorandum of understanding which would promote Brazilian sugar cane-based ethanol technology and thereby make the region less dependent on oil-rich countries such as Venezuela.
However, there is no indication that Washington is considering lowering the protective barriers of subsidies and tariffs enjoyed by ethanol producers in the United States, where the fuel is extracted from maize.
In Uruguay, Mr Bush's host will be President Tabaré Vásquez, head of a Left-wing coalition which in January signed an agreement with the United States establishing guidelines for boosting bilateral trade. Montevideo believes that the American market offers better prospects for economic growth than Mercosur, which groups Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Mr Bush's presence in Uruguay will also cock a snook at Argentina, which is engaged in a bitter dispute with its little neighbour over the construction of a paper mill by the Finnish company Botnia. Both parties have taken the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Argentinians arguing that the mill will poison the Uruguay and Plate rivers.
Already strained relations between Washington and Buenos Aires worsened last month when President Nestor Kirchner pledged to deepen ties with Venezuela and described Washington's attempts to contain Mr Chávez as "an absolute error".
In Colombia, the United States' closest ally in South America, Mr Bush will lend support to the Right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, as he grapples with a cocaine trade boosted by the virtual legalisation of coca in Bolivia, increased production in Peru and the lifting of controls on drug smugglers in Venezuela.
Drugs will also be on the agenda in Guatemala, the main storage area for cocaine destined for the American market. Mr Bush will also seek to prop up the conservative president, "scar Berger, whose authority is being challenged both by the security services and the Maras gangs.
In Mexico, the final stop of his tour, Mr Bush will praise the offensive by the centre-Right president, Felipe Calderón, against the drug cartels. The two leaders will also discuss how to control mass emigration across their common border while meeting American labour shortages in the agricultural and construction sectors.
Members since 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the two countries' commercial exchanges were worth over $330 billion last year, making Mexico the US's third largest trading partner after Canada and China.