Bush-Chavez Tours Seen from Cuba
When President Bush set out on his five-nation tour of Latin America on Thursday March 8th he was hoping to obtain support for Washington’s effort to isolate Venezuela and tighten its stranglehold on Cuba.
However, once he touched down in Brazil, and later Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico it became apparent that he is virtually alone on the issue. Instead, most of the region wants to maintain or increase ties with Cuba and Venezuela.
Fidel Castro’s active participation by telephone in a three-way meeting with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Haiti’s Rene Preval on Tuesday let more air out of the White House balloon.
“Fidel was very keen to make sure the trilateral cooperation succeeds,” Preval told a news conference. The three countries agreed to $21 million dollars of funding from Venezuela to extend medical programs carried out by Cuban doctors in rural Haiti.
Cat-and-Mouse Ends in Haiti and Mexico
Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and US President George W. Bush ended their parallel trips in Haiti and Mexico respectively after a cat-and-mouse stalking around Latin America and the Caribbean that both claimed was unintentional.
Before Chavez’ last stop in Port-au-Prince he signed new accords in Argentina to further the Bank of the South project and found the South American Organization of Gas Exporting Producers; in Bolivia for mining, telecommunications, hydrocarbons, and lumber, tourism and cement production projects; and in Nicaragua, to build a large oil refinery.
In Jamaica, he invited Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to jump on the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas bandwagon that promotes regional integration via mutually beneficial trade and improved social programs instead of corporate profit. The prime minister noted the already existing cooperation with Venezuela on PetroCaribe and said her country would carefully study the offer.
Chavez poked fun at Bush’s belated recognition of conditions on the continent. “He thinks he is Columbus, discovering poverty after seven years in power,” scoffed Chavez.
Bush Tour Backfires
The trip of US President George W. Bush to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico was the best opinion poll that money could buy. Although the leaders he visited have widely divergent political leanings, the real barometer of support for his policies was out on the streets.
Bush was cordially received by Presidents Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Tabare Vasquez (Uruguay), Alvaro Uribe (Colombia), Oscar Berger (Guatemala) and Felipe Calderon (Mexico).
Worried about his security and not wanting to upset protocol, the US president’s hosts did everything possible to keep him out of sight and voice range of the massive demonstrations that rejected his presence.
High metal security barriers, hovering helicopters, barricades and thousands of tear gas shooting and baton-wielding riot police were some of the many security precautions that had to be taken to protect President Bush at each leg of his trip.
Several US reporters unfamiliar with the Latin American beat were taken aback by the “welcoming” for Bush. Their colleagues following Chavez couldn’t help but note the opposite reaction the Venezuelan leader received.
In Colombia, where President Uribe is considered firmly in the Bush camp, demonstrations took place in some 20 cities and riot police attacked protestors at Bogota’s National University and several were injured. US flags reportedly sold like hot cakes, but for burning during demonstrations instead of ceremonial flying. The same occurred days later in Mexico.
The New York Times noted that the US has spent 4.7 billion dollars, the lion’s share in military assistance, to prop up the Colombian government since 2000 and the administration is proposing another 3.9 billion through 2014.
In Guatemala, workers protested the recent round-up of some 300 Guatemalans in Massachusetts. The factory workers were jailed and cruelly separated from their young children. A plea by President Oscar Berger to Bush for clemency to avoid their deportation was met with a cold shoulder.
The US president said, “It’s very important for the people of South America and Central America to know that the United States cares deeply about the human condition,” but he let Berger know that enforcing the law is above any pandering to illegal immigrants.
In Brazil, Bush told a press conference: “I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives.” However, an ongoing request from Lula to end US trade barriers on his country’s exports, including the high tariff on ethanol, has received a flat no.
The combination of a free reign for US corporations in the region and US subsidies and tariffs to keep out key Latin American export products is widely considered part of the reason why poverty has dramatically increased over the last two decades.
In Uruguay, President Tabare Vasquez whisked Bush out of sight to the Estancia Anchorena retreat near the border with Argentina. Bush relaxed in the rural setting, and the two presidents avoided discussing any burning issues, like US farm subsidies and Uruguay’s steadfast opposition to the US war in Iraq.
To avoid TV images of the anti-Bush protests in Montevideo and nearby Buenos Aires, the two presidents had a barbeque lunch and took a boat ride on the La Plata River.
In Mexico, his last stop, Bush had nothing new to offer in response to a request for a more friendly immigration policy and an end to the 700-mile “Berlin Wall” —as President Felipe Calderon calls it— being built on the border. Calderon said his country seeks a relationship with the US of “mutual respect.”
Bush said he hopes Congress will pass his guest worker program, but Calderon maintained that the only way to keep Mexicans from immigrating north “is to generate jobs for Mexicans here in Mexico.”
President Bush was scheduled to fly Air Force One back to the US on Wednesday afternoon. He is now expected to leave behind the region where he came up empty handed, and focus on his battle on Capitol Hill for more funding and more troops for his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Laying the ground work for a possible attack on Iran also appears high on the administration’s agenda.