President's policies earned him scorn on Latin America trip

November 13, 2005|By RICHARD O'MARA

One can't help but wonder what President Bush expected in South America, where he went to attend the Summit of the Americas on free trade. Escape from his political troubles at home, perhaps? Distance from the quarrelsome din over his Supreme Court nominees? Or maybe some relief from the cloud of smut staining the White House following the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., one of the godfathers of his war in Iraq?

Surely Mr. Bush's handlers knew when preparing him that he would be entering the region most hostile to him outside the Middle East, and the country, Argentina, whose people hold the deepest dislike for him than any in the hemisphere.

In a hotel in Mar del Plata, overlooking the silver South Atlantic, the leaders of 34 countries talked for two days and then dissolved into abject irresolution over the merits of a proposed hemispheric system of open markets, North to South, that Mr. Bush came to champion. He was met with energetic protests against his message, some rioting and a spray of insults to his person and policies. Similar protests were reported across the River Plate in minute and usually peaceful Uruguay. It doesn't like him, either.

As a candidate for the presidency in 2000, Mr. Bush promised he would give Latin American issues his serious attention. That was welcomed in the region. It would have been unprecedented: Most American presidents have only turned their eyes southward just before dispatching the Marines.

After his election, Mr. Bush made a few phone calls, visited Mexico and promised his counterpart there, President Vicente Fox, that together they would resolve the nettlesome issue of immigration from that country. But after 9/11, the phone went dead. Mr. Bush girded his loins as a "war president" and warned that any country not with him stood against him.

Before long, many Latin Americans found it difficult to enter the United States. Visas were being withheld from ordinary, non-terroristic-type people from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and other countries, people who had relatives and friends here and business to do. Middle-class tourists and others who only wanted to study were denied U.S. hospitality. I know a bright 15-year-old girl in Argentina who won a scholarship to study English here. Her father, who comes here frequently on business, was certain she would get a visa. She didn't, and she never was told why.

This is offered as an anecdote, not evidence of a massive effort to keep foreigners out because they are foreigners. But irritation is rife; it fuels the animosity toward Mr. Bush. It also illuminates an irony embedded in his appeal for the free movement of goods among the countries of this hemisphere, but not the free, or at least easy, movement of their citizens.

Not all Latin Americans are convinced that free trade leads to a happier future, though a majority probably are, especially among those old enough to remember the decades of stagnation under governments wedded to the notion that domestic industries can flourish only when the competition is kept out by high import tariffs.

Chile proved the fallacy of the protectionist idea when it embraced the free-market theories of the American economist Milton Friedman, lowered its tariffs and allowed companies to fire thousands of superfluous employees.

The immediate consequence in Chile was a depression, massive unemployment, hunger and homelessness - at least until the economy finally began to take off and surpass those of all its neighbors. Another irony: These draconian measures were possible only because Chile was under a dictatorship, not a democracy.

Also, even many who support the idea of a group of countries agreeing to open their borders to each others' goods are not keen on having a country participating with an economy as large as that of the United States. Imagine small-town merchants inviting Wal-Mart to set up shop on Main Street.

There are people who oppose open markets and global capitalism on purely ideological grounds. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela does; he's a socialist. It's not entirely clear where the Argentine president, Nestor Kirchner, stands. His Peronist party is rooted in the ideology of trade unionism. Mr. Kirchner is a nationalist and a populist, like Mr. Chavez, though he is without epaulets or the Venezuelan's uncontrolled need to berate Mr. Bush. He is suspicious of unbridled capitalism and plays the foil to the International Monetary Fund.

It is said that Mr. Kirchner holds a grudge against Mr. Bush for declining to bail out Argentina when its economy imploded four years ago after having helped Turkey out of similar straits. Following the collapse, Argentina repudiated most of its foreign debt. Its creditors predicted apocalypse. The poverty level and unemployment spiked, bartering systems came into being.

But Argentina survived. Mr. Kirchner was elected, and since then, Argentina's economy has recorded annual growth rates of about 7.5 percent. Mr. Kirchner's occasional barbs against the country's former creditors - remarks such as, "There's life after the IMF" - have lent him a certain cachet at home and abroad and a level of popularity that Mr. Bush must surely envy.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun who had been based in Buenos Aires. His e-mail is

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