Analysis: Bush heads to Latin America

By JOHN P. GRAMLICH  |  Oct. 28, 2005 at 2:37 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- President Bush's trip to Argentina next week for a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders might afford him a break from the political turmoil in Washington this week, but more turmoil could be waiting in Latin America.

After one of the worst weeks in his administration, Bush travels to Mar del Plata, Argentina, Nov. 4-5 for the fourth Summit of the Americas, a meeting of the hemisphere's 34 democratically elected leaders. The summit will focus on poverty and democratic governance.

And while the summit might have provided welcome respite for Bush after Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination amid criticism from liberals and conservatives alike, and senior administration official I. Lewis Libby resigned after being indicted in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case, protests about the U.S. president's impending visit to Latin America, which will include stops in Brazil and Panama, have already begun.

About 6,000 demonstrators took to the streets of the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, Wednesday, throwing objects at the U.S. Embassy to protest U.S. foreign policy, AFX News reported. Bush heads to Brasilia Nov. 5-6 following the summit in Argentina to hold bilateral talks with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva before closing out his trip in Panama Nov. 6-7 with talks with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos Espino.

In Brazil, Lula's Workers' Party called for more demonstrations ahead of Bush's visit, according to AFX News. Protests are also expected in Argentina.

The unwelcome reception for Bush might not end with protests in the streets, experts said. A major subtext to the summit in Mar del Plata is the Bush administration's ongoing relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has accused the U.S. government of trying to topple his regime in a 2002 coup and who has repeatedly criticized Bush's policies in Iraq and elsewhere.

Although the Bush administration has denied the claims, it has not condemned the idea of regime change in Venezuela and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called the Chavez government "a negative force" in the region.

The worst-case scenario for Bush would be an open confrontation with Chavez -- and, possibly, Chavez supporters -- during the summit, said Nelson Cunningham, a panelist at a discussion on what to expect in Mar del Plata, held Thursday at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington.

"At the worst, we can expect an ambush of President Bush," Cunningham said. "Chavez has said he's looking forward to seeing 'Mr. Danger' in Argentina, and plainly you can imagine that Chavez is lying in wait. The question will be, who else will Chavez have lying in wait with him?"

Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner "has had his own share of anti-American rhetoric and anti-Bush rhetoric" and could join Chavez in such an "ambush," according to Cunningham.

"There frankly [are] the makings of a confrontation, and you don't yet know how that will play out," Cunningham said.

Amid speculation about a possible Bush-Chavez confrontation and the volume of protests in the streets of Latin American cities, little seems to have been said about the summit itself, which has received mainly pessimistic views by analysts who spoke to United Press International.

After the inaugural Summit of the Americas in 1994, in which the Free Trade Area of the Americas was introduced as an attempt to create a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone, Latin American leaders have pushed the FTAA lower on the summit's agenda and the process to incorporate the proposal has stalled, according to Cunningham.

Cunningham characterized the stalled process as a disagreement between the United States and some Latin American states, which he called a "left-vs.-right struggle" that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the theme of this year's summit as selected by host Argentina -- "Creating Jobs To Fight Poverty and Strengthen Governance" -- itself creates a paradox, said Alejandro Chafuen, president and CEO of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

"Without rule of law, how can you expect countries to become competitive?" Chafuen said, noting a huge increase in corruption in Latin America in the last three years has made the issue of poverty moot. Chafuen called the Summit of the Americas "window-dressing, just smoke and mirrors."

But if Latin America has felt itself put on the back burner since Sept. 11, 2001, as experts have argued, Bush can change that perception next week, said Peter DeShazo, a former representative to the Organization of American States and president of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, centrist Washington think tank.

"I think it's an important opportunity to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the Americas," DeShazo said, adding that the summit should be viewed as a process rather than a single meeting and that poverty, especially, is an issue of "burning concern in the region."

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