In an effort to show that improving U.S. ties with Latin America would be a top priority of his administration, George W. Bush's first official trip abroad was to Mexico. "Muchos gracias, amigo," said the president in February 2001, thanking his Mexican counterpart for the welcome. President Bush added he felt "entre familia" (among family) by the warm reception of his Mexican hosts.
Since then, the administration's occupations elsewhere have caused relations between the U.S. and Latin America to sour. At the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina last weekend, hemispheric relations took another stumble over a proposed trade agreement, further polarizing the region.
The 34-nation summit deteriorated into a referendum on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The U.S. delegation and its allies supported renewed rounds of trade talks, while the nations of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) economic bloc -- Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay -- opposed movement on the FTAA negotiations, along with Venezuela.
The Mercosur countries, which will induct Venezuela as a full member next month, argued they must first build closer economic ties among themselves before joining a larger agreement with the United States. They also said that pending trade disputes should be dealt with under the rubric of the World Trade Organization meeting next month.
In the end, the final declaration of the summit left open the option for further discussions of the FTAA. But Venezuela and the Mercosur bloc also managed to squeeze in wording acknowledging, "Some [summit] members maintain that the conditions for a balanced and equitable free trade agreement do not yet exist." In effect, the delegations agreed to disagree.
Joaquín Morales Solá, a columnist with the Argentine daily La Nación, wrote that the meeting "was a failure for both camps." In his column, Solá said Mercosur was completely isolated and out of touch, while the United States failed to gain key support for the FTAA, even with 28 Latin American countries already backing its position.
The United States has existing trade accords with Chile, Mexico, five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, and is in the process of negotiating bilateral deals with four Andean countries and Panama. Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer dubbed this piecemeal strategy "the FTAA of the willing."
After the summit, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the one Latin American leader unequivocally against the FTAA, proclaimed with his usual bravado that Venezuela and the Mercosur countries had "fended off" the U.S. and Canadian delegations "like five musketeers." But this falls far short of his stated intention to "bury a dead FTAA in Mar del Plata."
During a stopover in Brazil, President Bush spoke of "two competing visions" in the Americas.
The rise of leftist presidents in the region, thus far limited to the Mercosur countries and Venezuela, may soon include other leaders who are skeptical of trade deals like the FTAA as next year's packed electoral season gets underway.
In the next 12 months, Latin America is scheduled to hold 11 presidential elections that could help tip the scales decidedly to the left in key countries. In Mexico -- the U.S. delegation's most vocal ally in the Summit -- frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a left-leaning candidate and a harsh critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the prototype of the FTAA.
Evo Morales, a left-wing peasant leader who currently tops the polls in Bolivia, has built a close friendship with President Chávez. In Mar del Plata they both attended a counter-summit organized by activists protesting the FTAA. At the counter-summit, Morales said that "Chávez is a regional integrator who creates solidarity and speaks for Latin American peoples" and that "he's an immense figure in all the region."
As the world's fifth largest exporter of petroleum, enjoying record oil prices, Venezuela has increasingly used this windfall to cultivate strategic alliances in the region.
In the Caribbean, Chávez signed "PetroCaribe," a deal that offers Caribbean nations preferential oil prices with generous long-term financing. And with the Mercosur countries, he signed a deal to help coordinate energy production among the five nations' state oil companies, creating a regional energy conglomerate called "PetroSur." These are the two regions where the United States does not have "free trade" deals in the works.
Venezuela's growing alliances, and the material benefits such alliances provide, have made Chávez a hugely popular figure among the poor on a regional level. The Bush administration worries that Chávez is "a negative force in the region" and accuses him of meddling in the affairs of other countries.
Although Argentina's English-language daily Buenos Aires Herald's editorial page warned against reducing "an entire continent to the contrast between George Bush and Hugo Chávez," in Mar del Plata the contrast could not have been starker. And in many Latin American countries Bush is the most unpopular U.S. president ever, while Chávez could likely out-poll some heads of state in their own countries.
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