March 15, 2007

March 15, 2007 | Commentary on

U.S.-Latin America dance

"Too little, too late" is the mantra that has met President Bush's visit to Latin America from the foreign policy community here. Fairly typical was the op-ed in The Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria. "President Bush has done the right thing in going to Latin America... But Bush's new look at the region will not do much good. It's too little, too late." 

In Brazil, Mr. Bush was greeted -- if that's the word -- by protesters accusing him on being "No. 1 Enemy of Humanity." And, of course, the leader of the free world was tracked by the demented antics of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, who has been leading crowds in chanting "Oh, ho, ho, gringo go home" and taunting Mr. Bush as a political corpse. 

No wonder Mr. Bush in a moment of some exasperation said: "I don't think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people's lives. My trip is to explain as clearly as I can that our nation is generous and compassionate." On the airwaves, that has been translated into whether Latin Americans should be more grateful toward the United States.     

There is a world of difference between acknowledgement (or even knowledge) of what the United States does for Latin America in terms of foreign aid, counternarcotics efforts, remittances, free trade, etc., and gratitude. Where foreign policy and national interests are concerned, gratitude doesn't buy you a cup of coffee.     

That said, it is also important to take a look at the Bush administration's actual record on Latin America, which is far from paltry. It is far from one of neglect. In fact, the media, which have failed to make any note of it, might more aptly fit the charge.     

First of all, Mr. Bush began his presidency with a trip to Mexico for a summit with then-Mexican President Vicente Fox (much to the chagrin of the Europeans, who thought they were more important). It was followed by six other trips to the region, and now by Mr. Bush's week-long, five-country tour, covering Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Guatemala and Mexico. That makes eight visits in six years, more than any other president.    

Second, is myth over fact. It is not true, as one myth would have it, that Mr. Bush is avoiding public venues for fear of protesters. On his current visit, Mr. Bush has been in the heart of the region's population centers in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.     

Third, is aid. In terms of foreign aid to Latin America, it has doubled during the two Bush terms, from $800 million to $1.6 billion today. This includes grants from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which links aid money to good-governance practices.     

In Haiti, the United States is supporting the fight against HIV/AIDS, and the Bush administration has asked for a near doubling of funds for this purpose, from $47 million in 2006 to $85 million in 2008.     

In Colombia, the United States has been a staunch supporter of President Alvaro Uribe's Plan Colombia, which combats narcoterrorism and Marxist guerrillas -- the sources of massive trauma and upheaval. Colombia is the world's primary producer of cocaine, and since 2000, the United States has poured over $4 billion into helping Colombia fight this scourge. The White House is requesting $3.09 billion in aid for Colombia over the next seven years.     

Remittances from Latin Americans living and working in the United States are a crucial source of income for many of the economies south of the border. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, of the $60 billion that flows back to the region in remittances, $45 billion comes from the United States.     

And, of course, free-trade agreements, which the Bush administration has been assiduously pursuing, will help increase prosperity. Since the beginning of NAFTA, the Mexican economy has grown by more then 30 percent. Similar benefits can be expected from CAFTA, which links the economies of Central America and the United States. Mr. Bush is currently pushing three new bilateral free-trade agreements -- with Colombia, Peru and Panama.     

Now, this is not to paint a rosy picture of relations between north and south, which are indeed often strained, sometimes more than others. It is by way of saying, though, that negative spin often takes on a life of its own, especially with a second-term president whose ratings are languishing.     

A reality check is certainly in order, and Mr. Bush deserves credit for not being afraid to reach out.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times