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Latin America After Bush

Once again, America’s president has come up short in Latin America. Granted, President George W. Bush was well received by all his hosts in the five countries he visited, with traditional Latin American hospitality and cordiality. There were no major, unfortunate incidents; the constant protests were strident but not especially violent or well-attended; no significant slights or mishaps took place; and President Bush achieved what he probably was most interested in: sending a message back to the United States that he actually is interested in more than Iraq.

He also accomplished, in a somewhat round-about way, another goal: showing the flag, so to speak, in the face of the mounting challenge from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who, thanks to virtually unlimited supplies of oil dollars and Cuban doctors and foot-soldiers, is riding high across Latin America.

Chávez baited Bush at almost every stop along the way, but the US leader evaded the provocations, and indeed, probably bested Chávez in the sense that an unpopular US president managed to dominate the agenda and take the battle of ideas directly to Latin American audiences, with whom the Venezuelans and the Cubans are in contact every day. Bush was also able to partly change the tone of the US message in the hemisphere: from free trade and fighting terrorism, to combating poverty and strengthening democracy and human rights. If Bush had made this trip several years ago, things would be different today.

But everyone would also be in better shape today if Bush had been able to actually deliver on the main issues his interlocutors took up with him. Here, despite the photo-ops and the hugs and the local cuisine, the American president was simply not ready, willing or able, to give satisfaction to his colleagues, from capital to capital.