South Americans' Discontent Portends a Chilly Reception for Bush

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.

But the new heads of state are not necessarily anti-American or isolationist. Brazil's Lula, who made his name as a labor leader, has embraced free trade and encouraged fiscal discipline to pay for social programs. President Ricardo Lagos of Chile, a socialist, has been praised in Washington for his business-friendly policies.

"While the new leaders were elected as leftists, they are actually acting as pragmatists," said John Zogby, an independent pollster who recently completed a survey of South American opinion leaders. "It's not a hard leftist ideology, but rather a market ideology with a human face," he said from his office in New York.

The officials who will meet Bush this weekend generally have a more sympathetic view of the United States than their constituents do, according to analysts. The Zogby poll indicated that Lagos is the most respected of the South American leaders, followed by Lula. The two most vocal opponents of the U.S. government -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro -- ranked near the bottom.

Such results may not translate into direct support of Bush, but they suggest that the continent's policy-makers are open to the sort of economic deal-making that the United States comes hoping to promote.

"We are engaged with our fellow summit participants to use this opportunity to highlight the importance of pro-growth policies and a proper enabling environment for the private sector to flourish," John F. Maisto, the State Department's summit coordinator, said in a recent speech. "This approach is the only way to sustainably generate more, better-quality jobs."

Bush's visit to Brazil could be instrumental in restarting trade negotiations and encouraging smoother relations throughout the region. Brazil's opposition to subsidies for U.S. farmers is a primary reason the talks have sputtered.

Good relations with Brazil also could help the United States neutralize the influence of leaders who seek to aggravate anti-American sentiments. Chavez, for example, apparently hopes to capitalize on the negative U.S. image as a way to kill or discourage FTAA-style trade pacts.

The Venezuelan leader plans to lead a stadium rally Friday in Mar del Plata to spread his message that the trade deal would benefit U.S. corporations at the expense of Latin America's poor. Chavez envisions a regional economy less dependent on the United States and has signed pacts to sell oil to some Caribbean countries in exchange for payments partly delivered in the form of agricultural products or social services.

"The FTAA is dead," Chavez said Sunday on his weekly television program. "It will have to be buried. The people of this continent will bury it, and another model of integration will emerge."

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