Bush Faces Daunting Challenges During Latin American Trip

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - President Bush's five-nation, eight-day tour of Latin America beginning Thursday comes at a time when left-of-center governments are threatening U.S. influence in the region, according to policy analysis and some members of Congress.

Bush will be visiting Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum believe the U.S. government has not paid sufficient attention to the emerging challenges in the Western Hemisphere. Some charge American "unilateralism" is to blame for strained relations, while others see mostly internal factors at work.

As the president embarks on his journey, he will be "stepping into an environment where anti-American sentiment has never been higher," Julia Sweig, director for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said during a conference call Wednesday.

Antipathy toward the U.S. in the region is largely driven by "a sense that America's global power projection has gone overboard" in the form of unilateralism, Sweig charged. She anticipated that Bush would encounter "major protests."

Instead of emphasizing the "trifecta of trade, terror and drugs," Sweig said the president and his team should put the emphasis on questions of equality and "social justice" that are of interest to citizens of Latin America.

Ian Vasquez, director of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the libertarian Cato Institute, said Latin American leaders typically scapegoat the U.S. in an effort to distract attention anyway from their own policy failures.

While public opinion in Latin America tends to be lined up against Bush because of the war in Iraq, Vasquez told Cybercast News Service, there is also a large appetite for free trade with the U.S.

"Latin America is schizophrenic in its attitude toward the U.S.," Vasquez said. "When the U.S. becomes involved, it is accused of interventionism and heavy handedness, often times correctly so. But when it pulls back, it's accused of neglecting Latin America."

Some of the "heavy handed" policies Vasquez said he objected to included the "drug war," "arbitrary tariffs," and the embargo on Cuba.

The "distraction" of Iraq has done "grievous damage" to U.S.-Latin American relations, Larry Birns, director of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said in an interview.

American negligence has created an opening for a new and energized bloc of leftist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua to greatly jeopardize White House ambitions in the region, he argued.

Birns singled out Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a figure who represents a particularly strong challenge to U.S. ambitions.

"Chavez has come across with a devastating formula of democratic socialism," he said. "This is lethal dose for the [Bush] administration to swallow. But Chavez is making great progress in advancing an alternate form of government."

Vasquez is not so sure.

"I think the populist wave has crested," he said. "The idea that Chavez can dictate events is exaggerated."

In recent years, Vasquez believes the administration has improved its record in Latin America, especially with regard to free trade agreements. Moreover, countries like Colombia - and even Brazil - "view Chavez with suspicion."

"The more he [Chavez] puts money into places like Bolivia and Ecuador, the more nervous others get," he added.

The contest for "hearts and minds" between Bush and Chavez will not be settled during the American president's eight-day trip, Sweig said.

However, in coming years, the U.S. will have to offer "Latin American elites" the tools they need to alleviate social and political inequality, she contended.

In an editorial published Wednesday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) expressed concern over "a fresh wave of authoritarianism [in Latin America] fueled by petrodollars, populism and anti-Americanism," which she said had "cast a dark cloud over the future of freedom" in America's backyard.

To reverse the trend, Hutchison said it was imperative to "dust off the Cold War playbook" and to "become increasingly active" in aiding American allies in the region.

Hutchison also cited a potential threat to American security from Chavez and the alliance that the Venezuelan president has forged with Iran and other regimes hostile to the U.S.

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