South of the border

March 08, 2007

As he travels Latin America, President Bush will be dodging a pretty big pachyderm.

Caracas is not on the itinerary of the president's weeklong trip, which begins today. But the administration's renewed interest in Latin America follows closely Venezuela's resurgence in the region and the popularity of its leftist, anti-American president, Hugo Chavez. Mr. Bush, who used to tout his knowledge of the region, has paid little attention to Latin America since the 2001 terrorist attacks, except for funding drug interdiction in Colombia. That void has been richly filled by Mr. Chavez, who never misses an opportunity to denigrate the U.S. and attack its capitalist, democratic agenda.

Mr. Chavez's rhetoric appeals to the impoverished who have benefited little from the region's experiment with a market economy. He has used Venezuela's oil wealth to entice the poor to embrace his cult brand of populism, and his message unfortunately has resonated throughout the region as increasing numbers of leftists have risen to power. Mr. Chavez is a relentless adversary; he plans to co-host anti-Bush protests in Argentina.

The Bush administration must recognize Mr. Chavez's appeal, expose the underside of his platforms and counter with policies that stimulate investment in and benefits for the region's underclass. The Bush trip signals recognition by the administration that its relationship with Latin America has suffered, which is welcome but overdue.

The president's plan to work jointly with Brazil on promoting ethanol as an alternative energy resource may bring some benefit to those who most need it, but how much of an impact can it have economically and politically if the U.S. retains its 54-cent trade tariff on imported ethanol? Knocking back that tariff would spur expansion of Latin American-produced ethanol and its use in the U.S. Initiatives on health care, homeownership and education are modest steps toward improving relations.

But one trip to the region isn't going to make up for six years of neglect. While U.S. aid to Latin America has increased during the Bush years, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, a coalition that has challenged Bush policies there, contends that much of it has gone toward Colombia's efforts to stop drug trafficking - aid with little impact on improving the everyday Latin American's standard of living.

It's time to rethink the extent of funding for Colombia - the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid - and whether those dollars would be better spent elsewhere in Latin America. Some members of Congress are wondering the same thing as a scandal involving drug-running paramilitary groups implicates some of President Alvaro Uribe's Cabinet.

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