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President Bush Takes His Unpopularity to Latin America

Montevideo, Uruguay: Posters protesting President Bush's visit.
Montevideo, Uruguay: Posters protesting President Bush's visit.
Photo by ClixYou, March 9, 2007.
Cochabamba, Bolivia: A January poll of 603 prominent Latin Americans (leading politicians, government officials, academics and journalists) found that 86 percent gave the Bush administration a fair or poor grade for its handling of the region. Poll after poll in the region shows that Bush's resounding unpopularity looks just as deep both on the street and even among self-described conservatives. It is likely that more people believe that professional wrestling is real than believe the Bush Administration is much of a friend south of the border.

To be sure, Bush has launched his trip with rhetoric as sunny as the South American summer into which he is headed. Bush told Colombian TV. "It's nothing more than to say we want to be your friends, and we've got a very strong policy of improving the lives of others. My trip is a chance to tell the people of Colombia, Uruguay and Brazil and Guatemala and Mexico that the United States cares deeply about the human condition."

South Americans aren't buying it.

In Bogotá, Colombia this week, a full three days before Bush was even set to arrive, more than 2,000 people filled the streets to protest his visit. More than 6,000 protested today in Sao Paolo Brazil, Bush's first stopover. Similar greetings await him at most every visit ahead. In a region of the world that once named broad avenues after modern U.S. Presidents, Mr. Bush is not even likely to score having a bus bench erected in his name.

The Roots of U.S. Unpopularity
Why is Bush, and by association the U.S., so unpopular here? Certainly many Bush backers will argue that his antagonists in the region (and he has many) have made it standard practice to blame the U.S. for every ailment the region suffers – from economic catastrophe to natural disaster. There is some truth to this. It is the nature of politicians to look for ways to blame everyone but themselves. What, for example, hasn't Bush himself blamed on the attacks of 9/11? From the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, the U.S. has been blamed for all manner of problems, including a good many that are homegrown.

But the tide of anti-U.S. sentiment keeps rising here, not because of false concerns, but real ones. Consider a few:

Economic Policies Rained Down from Above
Latin America, more than any region of the world, has suffered two decades of being used as a test lab for a radical experiment in the ideology of "unfettered capitalism will solve everything." It was an experiment directly sponsored by the U.S. and its economic missionaries, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and it didn't turn out too well for the lab rats. Countries like Bolivia were coerced into "privatizing" their natural resources into the hands of powerful U.S. corporations such as Bechtel and Enron (close Bush allies, both), in exchange for essential foreign aid.

The people of those nations lost control of their most basic economic decisions and their public treasuries and individual purses suffered damaging losses. If there is a core reason behind the so-called "pink tide" that has swept one left-leaning government after another into office in the region, it is resentment against the forced economics of the so-called "Washington Consensus" that have left people here worse off, not better.

Bush's so-called "free trade" agenda is no more popular. U.S. imports from an economy hundreds of times larger than many here flood out local products generating increasing unemployment, just as the U.S. begins work on a southern wall aimed at keeping the unemployed from looking north for new options.

Human Rights on U.S. Terms
Just this week, the Bush Administration released its global, 193-country, review of everyone else's human rights record but its own. The State Department report proclaims, "Across the globe, men and women are pushing for greater personal and political freedom and for the adoption of democratic institutions. They are striving to secure what President Bush calls 'the non-negotiable demands of human dignity." To many in Latin America this reads more like, "Do what we say, not what we do."

Aside from the obvious comparisons of that rhetoric against U.S. actions in Iraq and in Guantanamo (Latin America) there is the direct hand of the U.S. right here in the region. Again, using Bolivia as an example, for more than ten years (until the Morales Administration suspended the practice last year) Bolivian anti-drug prosecutors received a special salary bonus directly from the U.S. government. To keep their foreign patrons happy, those prosecutors repeatedly mixed the innocent with the guilty to keep arrest figures growing ever-upwards.

More than 37,000 Bolivians were thrown into the government's decrepit jails in the last decade, under a law (also forced onto the Bolivia by the U.S.) that denied each one of them any chance of release for at least a year and a half, innocent or not.

The War in Iraq
Only three Latin American nations were a part of President Bush's original 49 member "Coalition of the Willing" when the Iraqi invasion was launched four years ago (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, all of which were led by close Bush allies at the time), committing a total of less than 1,000 troops. Two of them – Honduras and Guatemala – pulled their soldiers out little more than a year later. The Iraq war is deeply unpopular in Latin America. Latin American countries register some of the strongest public opinion against the war anywhere in the world. The percentage of people in favor of U.S. withdrawal is 80% in Argentina, 67% in Brazil, 63% in Mexico and 62% in Chile.

The war, even though it is far away and only a tiny handful of solders from the region remain in it, is a region-wide symbol that the Bush Administration cares a good deal less deeply "about the human condition" than the President's pre-trip rhetoric seeks to claim.

The Chavez Factor
Much has been made in the U.S. press that Bush's trip to Latin America is really aimed at countering the growing regional influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. There is certainly no doubt that Bush and Chavez like one another about as much as a snail likes to be showered with salt. In his speech to the UN last fall, Chavez called Bush "the devil" and claimed that he could "still smell sulfur" behind the UN podium where Bush had spoken earlier. Bush administration officials, including then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, eagerly liken Chavez to Adolph Hitler.

Chavez does carry increasing weight in Latin America and he uses it without disguise to challenge U.S. policy in the region. For example, Venezuela recently made huge loans to Argentina allowing it to payoff its debts to the IMF and divorce itself from the unpopular Washington-based lender. From the U.S. perspective, Chavez is the new Fidel Castro, but with billions of dollars in national income to spread around as a result of being one of the world's leading oil suppliers in a time of spiked global oil prices. U.S. aid to the region is quickly being surpassed by cash flowing from Caracas.

All of which brings me to my final point. If the Bush Administration thinks that a weeklong tour of Latin America by the most unpopular President in recent memory is a formula for challenging Chavez, then it has planned poorly. There are certainly some more moderate heads in the State Department than U.S. policy would suggest and the trip may well be their brainchild. But this is not John Kennedy four and a half decades ago, who was mobbed by well-wishers and who proclaimed in Bogotá, "We must prove that free institutions can best answer their implacable demand for social justice, for food, for material welfare and, above all, for a new hope—hope for themselves and for their children."

Bush's visit will not be marked by well-wishers but by burning U.S. flags and burning Bushes, torched in effigy. It will be up to the next U.S. President to pick up the pieces of the tattered relations and broken trust between the U.S. and its southern neighbors. There are many U.S. citizens, both at home and abroad, who are eager to see that happen.


Jim Shultz
Jim Shultz is the founder and Executive Director of The Democracy Center. He has been a leader in public policy and advocacy work for more than 25 years, and has served as staff to the California Legislature, as an advocate with Common Cause and Consumers Union and has taught public policy and public administration to undergraduate and graduate students at San Francisco State University. As executive director of The Democracy Center, which he established in 1992, he founded the California Budget Project and has trained and counseled thousands of citizen activists on five continents. He is the author of two books, The Democracy Owners' Manual (Rutgers University Press, 2002) and The Initiative Cookbook - Recipes and Stories from California's Ballot Wars (The Democracy Center, 1996). His articles on democracy and public affairs regularly appear in newspapers across the U.S., Canada and the UK. Jim lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia where he has also served as President of an 80-child orphanage.

The Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia and San Francisco, California, works globally to advance human rights through a combination of investigation and reporting, training citizens in the art of public advocacy, and organizing international citizen campaigns. This article first appeared in, and is reproduced with the kind permission of, The Democracy Center On-Line, an electronic publication distributed on an occasional basis to more than 4,000 organizations, policy makers, journalists and others, throughout the U.S. and worldwide. To join their list send an email to contact[at]democracyctr.org or sign up on their website.

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