South Americans' Discontent Portends a Chilly Reception for Bush

A municipal worker removes protest posters in Mar del Plata, Argentina, site of this week's Summit of the Americas.
A municipal worker removes protest posters in Mar del Plata, Argentina, site of this week's Summit of the Americas. (By Enrique Marcarian -- Reuters)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 3, 2005

BUENOS AIRES -- As President Bush prepares for a visit to South America this week, thousands of people in the region have been preparing to make sure he knows exactly what they think of him.

In Argentina, where Bush will attend a Summit of the Americas conference Friday and Saturday, small bombs have been tossed at several American bank branches and chain stores, and soccer idol Diego Maradona has urged viewers of his popular TV talk show to join him in a protest to "say no to Bush" outside the meeting, being held in the seaside town of Mar del Plata.

In Brazil, where Bush will meet Sunday with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, thousands of protesters have stood outside the U.S. Embassy with signs labeling Bush "Public Enemy Number One."

The chilly welcome, according to public opinion polls, reflects a general slide of the U.S. government's popularity throughout South America. While some of the criticism centers on the war in Iraq, much of it is linked to regional economic policies such as privatization and low tariffs promoted by multinational lenders and supported by both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

"Relations between the regions have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War -- they're dismal," Peter Hakim, president of the nonprofit group Inter-American Dialogue, said from Washington. "They began declining in the mid-1990s when the Clinton administration couldn't come through on a trade agenda, but after September 11 they've taken another turn for the worse."

Bush has said he hopes to work during the summit on forging trade agreements with Latin American countries, although he said Tuesday that the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, an alliance proposed in the 1990s, was unlikely to be revived this week. Instead, the United States is expected to promote bilateral agreements, such as its 2003 trade pact with Chile.

When Bush took office in 2001, he promised a renewed focus on Latin America. But the region quickly slipped down his list of priorities after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that year and then the war in Iraq, leaving many South Americans complaining that the United States had no coherent regional agenda except fighting terrorist threats. Public opinion polls suggest that if Bush wants those nations to be more open to U.S. points of view, his job could be tough.

"I don't like Bush because I don't think he understands poverty or the problems of developing countries," said Luis Alvarez, 47, a Buenos Aires resident with a degree in economics. "Poor countries want to have political independence, too -- the freedom to make decisions for themselves."

Many Latin American countries in the 1990s adopted Washington-backed policies that encouraged industrial privatization and low tariffs. But as poverty and gaping income disparities persisted, many South Americans dismissed such strategies as failures. Nowhere are they looked upon with more skepticism than in Argentina, which suffered a currency collapse in 2001.

After surveying residents in 21 countries recently, the polling firm GlobeScan found that Argentines had the darkest view of U.S. international influence, with 65 percent of those responding labeling it "mainly negative."

Free-trade proponents say such finger-pointing ignores some of the region's missteps, such as the heavy borrowing that propped up Argentina in the 1990s. If the benefits of a globalized economy are bypassing Latin America, they say, red tape is part of the problem. A World Bank report this year found that it takes an average of 63 days to start a business in Latin America; in the United States, it takes five.

In the past five years, South American voters have elected populist or socialist leaders in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela and Chile. This year, massive street protests urging greater freedom from U.S.-led economic policies have ousted presidents in Ecuador and Bolivia.

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