President Bush's failure to persuade Latin American and Caribbean leaders to approve a U.S.-backed free trade agreement during the recent Summit of the Americas is an indication of waning U.S. influence in Latin America after years of diplomatic neglect by his administration, and a reminder of why it is important to nurture ties in that region.
The outcome of the two-day summit in Argentina, attended by 34 Western Hemisphere countries, was further signal of a growing willingness among those nations to assert political independence from the U.S. and express unease with U.S. assurances that the agreement will benefit the region.
While Mr. Bush focused primarily on the Middle East over the last few years, poverty and public discontent grew throughout the region and several South American countries turned leftward politically. The administration must now increase the pace of diplomatic re-engagement it has embarked on in Latin America in recent months to court potential signatories to the agreement.
Mr. Bush's visit to Argentina was overshadowed by widespread protests against him, the war in Iraq and perceived threats of "U.S. imperialism," an outdated allegation nonetheless effectively leveled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Despite his obvious egotistical paranoia, Mr. Chavez was able to draw 25,000 protesters to rally against the agreement and exploit U.S. diplomatic missteps - including the Bush administration's premature support for a failed 2000 coup against Mr. Chavez - and to argue that the administration is more concerned about furthering U.S. interests than in creating jobs and supporting democracy through the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Mr. Chavez's arguments resonate with the region's 100 million poor people, and his emergence as one of region's most vocal critics of the U.S. is proof that the Bush administration's refusal to engage him has not isolated him politically. His use of his nation's oil wealth to promote stronger economic integration within Latin America and to reduce U.S. influence has gained him supporters among leftist groups in Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia that could eventually threaten the hemisphere. Coupled with his quest to seek nuclear energy, Mr. Chavez's actions could undermine democratic gains in the region if left unchecked.