There is a much ballyhooed visit by George Bush, the Iraq warmonger in trouble, across South America. And there is a strong temptation, not resisted by CNN, to make this trip a pit fight between Bush and Chavez who is also doing a counter tour of sorts. Very amusing but probably all very wrong. Let's go by parts, trying to simplify the issues. (1)
The US belatedness
It has finally come to the mind of people in charge in the US that the long neglect of Latin America is having an increasing cost for the country. Yes, I know, there is a war in Iraq, another one in Afghanistan, terrorist alerts and what not. But at some point some common sense must have prevailed and it seems that the change in Congress majority is bringing some changes in US foreign policy.
Now, it does not mean at all that the Democratic Congress is a better friend of LatAm than the GOP. It probably means simply that the US is now going back to a more bipartisan approach on foreign policy. Nanci Pelosi as well as George Bush know that above any difference they have they are in it together until the next presidential election. Since nasty fights are sure to come along the way, it is a good idea to find ways where agreements can be reached to soothe a little bit bruised political spirits. National Interest is always a good starting point to smoothen things up some.
This plays into the hands of Bush, a now very tarnished president, unable to find a way out of Iraq and probably conscious that he needs to leave something else to his legacy than Iraq. Latin America is a good place where to seek some redemption. After all he promised that his presidency would be about LatAm and he did not deliver at all. He does have some excuses but he can still deliver something if he sets his mind to it. After all he has more than a full year to start turning the tide.
"Turning the tide" is actually the key word. I have a sense that the Bush administration understands that they really screwed up on the South of the Border issues. Maybe they are prodded by the Dems, but these ones were not very stellar in their role to remind Bush about Latin America affairs. Both share the blame even if Bush will be the scapegoat. I am thus in fact rather impressed that Bush has dared to make this foray, knowing full well all the pitfalls, traps and snares that are awaiting him at every step. Maybe he is doing some atonement, maybe he might have realized that it his cross to bear but that if bears it well, he can get some results.
No matter what, if the US is doing this trip as a renewed bipartisan National Policy they might be harvesting good results sooner than expected. At least one thing is already certain: if you opened this Saturday the page of Google news US, you would have found out that Bush journey is getting very little coverage. If there is some visible punishment coming to Bush through riots, his LatAm Damascus road would not harm him much in US public opinion it seems...
Chavez high hopes and low reality
Indeed, what all wanted to see, in particular CNN "en español" trying to find the best footage possible of anti Bush riots, was rather missing in this Bush trip. It is not happening. Would Tabaré Vasquez and Lula da Silva invite Bush just to humiliate him utterly? I mean, we are not taking of an adventurer like Kirchner. It is in fact an utterly gross miscalculation of some of the media: Lula da Silva and Tabare are two serious presidents from two serious countries. They certainly knew that some protests would take place, like in any country Bush visits, but I am pretty sure that they took great pain in making sure that nothing went out of control. The visits are about US and Brazil or Uruguay interests, not about some local politician wanting to tell Bush that he is a mass murderer. No trip is needed for that.
Yes, certainly Chavez whipped up expectations by predicting huge protest marches and we know he has the wallet ready to sponsor any group wanting to protest against Bush. Add to this the desire of Chavez to figure as the LatAm new leader and the supposition that he would go to great extent to do an anti Bush posturing tour was reasonable. But he is not meeting the success he sought. After all he had to organize a paid for meeting in Buenos Aires to coincide with the arrival of Bush in Montevideo. Outside of a few thousand in Sao Paulo, nothing else was worth noticing until today in Colombia where finally a few people were hurt and arrested. But then again Colombia is a country at war, so it figures.
How embarrassing to have to pay people to go and listen to your stupid rants in Argentina! Chavez could have very well tried to organize the same anti Bush meeting at home, on the Tachira border with Colombia while Bush would be visiting Uribe today. But Chavez is a coward. He probably would have more trouble to organize a good rally in Tachira, the state that voted the most against him in last December election, a state which lives in a war like situation that has nothing to envy to some of the Middle East war zones. That is why he preferred safer Buenos Aires where he is seen like some rock star by people that know nothing.
In fact this meeting in Buenos Aires might end up costing him and Kirchner dearly. The Argentina president has shown himself to be as much a coward as Chavez by not daring to show up to the meeting. At least, if you allow such an infamy at home, have the courage to fess up and show up! Kirchner, in an electoral year at home, has opened himself up to criticism. How can a self respecting head of state allow another one to come at home to chair a near riot and definitely insulting rally against his neighbor’s private matters and guest? Because Kirchner forgot one thing: Tabaré Vasquez did invite Bush to visit. Or rather the US, whose president happens to be, for better or for worse, George W. Bush. Even better, Kirchner serves in a silver platter an additional argument to Tabaré Vasquez and Uruguay, more and more discontented about the bullying attitudes of Argentina and Brazil within Mercosur. Now, across the Plate River, there is more reason to think that there are only treasonous Argentineans who are only too willing to chide and cheat the little Uruguayan guys. Obviously letting Venezuela into Mercosur is not going to improve Uruguayan lot at all, as seen from the contempt expressed by Chavez. (2)
The Buenos Aires fiasco who can only be interpreted as a success only by the knee jerk “I hate Bush and the US” crowd. In Uruguay the people who resent bridge blockades from Argentinean “Piqueteros” and assorted lunatics are going to feel comforted in their determination. The rest of the world will lose respect towards Kirchner. Chavez will remain about the same since he is already pretty much unmasked for the rest of the world as the joker and coward he truly is, not going anywhere that his wallet has not secured first. And he will not even get the satisfaction of goading Bush into replying to an over used and worn out "gringo go home".
Business is business
But before going to Uruguay Bush did stop in Brazil. And it was indeed a meeting of equals, in potential at least. The second country of the Americas is now Brazil and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. The US is acknowledging it, just as Brazil is starting to understand its obligations as the second power of the Americas (and the de facto weather maker in South America). Thus Lula, trade union activist, leftist, striker and what not has no problem to seat down with Bush to negotiate the future of alternative energies, namely the production of Ethanol which Brazil is promised to be a leading, if not the leading future producer.
That did not stop Chavez from stating that the US was coming to Brazil to figure out how to steal all of its ethanol for its own use. I will not offend the reader by going into the stupidity of this allegation, if I mention it is just to show how low Chavez argumentation is falling. No matter: Lula sat down with Bush to negotiate alternative energy. And soon a TLC or some other figure? Because the sad reality for Chavez is that no matter how many bridges to build across the Orinoco he gives to Lula and Brazilian contractors, the opening of the US market to Brazilian product will make any Venezuelan deal pale in comparison. Brazil and the US are for better or for worse destined to decide how trade will operate in the Americas, not Chavez.
I am sure that these days Chavez must be remembering with some bitterness the visit Lula did a few days before his reelection and the scandalous endorsement he made. But it is certain that Lula will keep playing Chavez like a fiddle, praising him in public and doing the contrary in private or with other guys. Sic transit gloria mundi.
And now for some real courage
Chavez is bemoaning all the time that all sorts of people, often directed by the CIA, are trying to kill him (we are still waiting for hard evidence of any single assassination attempt). Well, the next stop of Bush was in Colombia, live on TV since it lasted a few hours only, shows who of the head of states is really courageous here. See, there are plenty of people that really want to kill Bush, starting by some among the not so big rioter group in Bogotá that CNN lovingly filmed (including one guy staying in the back and who suddenly lurched in front, taking out of his vest some object to throw at the riot police, without any comment from the CNN as to how "un-spontaneous" that rally was). And there is no discussing Uribe personal security threat who started during his first campaign when his campaign caravan was bombed, and confirmed later by FARC organized bombings on his first inaugural in Bogotá itself. If there are two presidents in the Americas that really put their lives at risk everyday it is Bush and Uribe.
So it was impressive that they dared put up an large outdoor welcome ceremony. Sure, the area had been emptied and the capital militarized, but there was also the possibility of some random rocket launch to at least disrupt the ceremony. However, Uribe was going to receive the President of the United States as magnificently as possible to show that Bogotá was not a forbidden city as it was when Uribe reached office, when Bogotá folks could not even take a Sunday drive in the country side so afraid they were to fall into some FARC road block.
During the joint press conference journalists tried to again bring Chavez into the picture or to force Bush to talk about the latest paramilitary scandal in Bogotá who has taken already the head of the foreign minister. Neither one felt into the trap. Bush said what it had to say, that an independent justice is what makes a democracy work. And Uribe refused to bite the Chavez bait and instead used the opportunity of a world gathering of journalist that usually do not worry an iota about Colombia to tell them his current vision of Colombia. They might or might nor report Uribe words, but the record is there, even if some nervousness in Uribe was duly noted: FARC? Long term Para-scandal effect? Not the best financial picture? FTA difficulties in new US Congress? Whatever, he might have betrayed some nervousness but he said it all.
However the reply to Chavez was there. The joint press conference took place under a large portrait of Simon Bolivar. And the words of Simon Bolivar and George Washington were recalled. It must be remembered that even if born in Caracas Bolivar was the first president of independent Colombia for a few years and that in Colombia he is considered as highly as in Venezuela and certainly less sycophantically... The message was clear, even if Bush and Uribe did not pronounce the word "Chavez" in public; he was told that he is not the sole carrier of the Bolivarian truth and myths.
Chavez has scored no point. The South American leg of the trip of Bush went on with much less trouble than expected, or promised by Chavez. No one brought him up to his great consternation it is safe to bet. In fact Chavez probably scored negative points as he looks less presentable than ever, someone that you cannot invite home as he might start a fist fight with your neighbour.
Bush has scored no point either. At least, for the time being he can be happy that he did not score any negative point which is already quite good. At least on a longer perspective the US has started the process to have its presence felt again in South America. The US can see that all want to trade with the US, even if their leaders come from the left. More than ever it is essential that the US stops dividing Latin America as a good versus bad governments, right versus cold war left. Now the division should be between serious leaders and trouble makers. The US, democratic Congress and GOP white House, or whatever will come next year, should realize that and recompense accordingly the serious leaders and ignore the other ones. These last ones will eventually sink on their own once they have eaten all their reserves. It is time to bail out of Iraq and go back from where the US should have never neglected. (Added later: read Robert Mayer take on the trip).
Lula and Vasquez did score points. Vasquez forced his perturbed left to face the real word and start growing out of cheap rhetoric. He also now will hold better cards against Argentina, and Chavez. Lula is ratified as the second in command of our continent. As such he will have yet more ammunition to control Chavez better, or at least get even juicier deals from the egomaniac. The entry visa for Chavez in Uruguay and Brazil has gone up in price.
Uribe? Well, who knows whether he won anything. The Bush visit is not necessarily good for his current problems even if his ratings remain good. Only if that visit helps on the TLC/FTA between Colombia and the US will this visit be a good score for Uribe. At least now he has demonstrated that the has the strength to control Bogota, even for a US president visit. No small feat if you ask me...
And now Bush moves on to Guatemala and Mexico, but those are very different situations and there Chavez is a much minor player.
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1) As it is the case in long and complex posts on occurring events, and as pictures keep arriving, I edited a little bit this post from last night version. Nothing much but since it was more than just a few misspells, and it included a new picture and links, I must point it out.
2) Argentina journalists have started analyzing the Kirchner faux-pas. A few articles from La Nacion, here, here and here. Plus a colorful description of the Chavez rally. In Spanish all, but worth reading if you can.