The Washington Post
March 07, 2007
... to deliver on his promise to strengthen U.S. alliances.
PRESIDENT BUSH'S tour of Latin America beginning tomorrow will be shadowed by Hugo Chávez, in more ways than one. On Friday, when Mr. Bush is to visit Uruguay, the Venezuelan president will appear at a mass rally across the Plate River in Argentina, where he will try to drown out his American rival. Mr. Chávez has paid well for his Buenos Aires soapbox: He has used Venezuela's petrodollars to buy $1.5 billion in Argentine debt, allowing leftist president Néstor Kirchner to steer clear of the International Monetary Fund.
Mr. Bush seems to understand that to confront Mr. Chávez, in words or otherwise, would be to provide him with the U.S. enemy he craves. When it goes unanswered, the Venezuelan's rhetoric tends to boomerang: Polls show that Mr. Chávez's popularity rating in Latin America is just as low as Mr. Bush's. Mr. Bush's duty is to demonstrate that those who choose alliance with the United States and the democratic world benefit more than Venezuela's motley collection of allies, headed by Cuba and Iran.
The president took a step in that direction on Monday by delivering a speech in which he announced several new aid initiatives on top of the $1.7 billion already budgeted for the region. A military hospital ship will tour the Caribbean, countering the Cuban doctors who shuttle around the region at Venezuela's expense. More scholarships will be offered to needy students to study in the United States, and housing assistance programs will be beefed up. Those are positive but modest steps. What's also needed are major U.S. initiatives to strengthen relations with the largest and most important Latin American countries: Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.
Mr. Bush still isn't doing enough to deliver what those countries most want from Washington. Brazil, for instance, would like a lowering of U.S. trade barriers. Yet while Mr. Bush will join with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in unveiling an interesting joint initiative to develop biofuels, what he won't do is support the removal of the senseless tariff now imposed on U.S. imports of Brazil's sugar cane-based ethanol. The administration is negotiating with Democrats in Congress on passage of important free-trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and Panama, but more presidential involvement is needed to push the treaties through. Similarly, good relations with Mexico hinge on rational and humane U.S. immigration reform; the White House has endorsed the right elements but never worked for their enactment.
Mr. Bush will never win a war of rhetoric with Mr. Chávez. But the United States ought to be able to offer far more than Venezuela can to Latin Americans hoping for social and economic improvement. Six years after Mr. Bush promised to make the region a priority of his presidency, it's not too late to deliver.