About ten thousand protestors rallied in Sao Paolo on Thursday against President Bush's arrival in Brazil, chanting "Bush Go Home" and prompting police to fire tear gas (BBC). It was an inauspicious start to the president's five-country trip to Latin America. Bush’s travel, to Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Guatemala, and Mexico, kicks off what the White House has labeled the “year of engagement,” an attempt to counter perceptions the United States has neglected the region (McClatchy). It is meant to show “the softer, gentler side of the Bush administration,” said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Yet as the protests demonstrate, anti-Americanism runs deep in Latin America, and many are skeptical (LAT) of this new attention from the United States. Some see Bush’s visit as a weak attempt to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s influence. High oil prices have given Chavez the ability to buy some $1.5 billion of Argentina’s bonds and offer to underwrite coca production in Bolivia, among other ventures. In contrast, Bush’s newly-announced aid package and his proposed 2008 foreign aid budget for Latin America are quite modest (NYT). Due to likely congressional restraints, “Bush, particularly on trade issues, probably has very little to concretely offer these countries,” says CFR Fellow Shannon O’Neil in an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman. In its Plan Colombia blog, the Center for International Policy breaks down the 2008 aid proposal, documenting drops in counternarcotics aid to several countries (but not Colombia) and increases in economic aid to Cuba’s opposition.
Though it may be short on substantive handouts, Bush’s trip does mark a shift in strategy away from the traditional U.S. focus on trade and counternarcotics. While Bush plans to discuss a free-trade agreement with Uruguay and his visit to Colombia will highlight the U.S.-Colombia counternarcotics partnership, both have been downplayed by the administration. The trip’s most notable new initiative could be a proposed ethanol partnership with Brazil, a deal intended to boost use and production of biofuels throughout Central and South America. The Economist heralds this “ethanol diplomacy,” noting that most Latin American countries could benefit from an ethanol industry because sugarcane grows all over the region. Eliminating the controversial U.S. fifty-four cent tariff on Brazilian ethanol, however, will not be part of the new partnership. But CFR's Edward Alden and the Wilson Center's Paul Sotero write in the Washington Post that Brazil's willingness to overlook the tariff signals its interest in collaborating with Washington for new global markets—“a generous offer, and one the Bush administration and Congress should seize.” In Mexico, Bush’s meeting with President Felipe Calderon will center on immigration issues, and will try to mitigate negative sentiment over the seven-hundred-mile border fence he authorized in October.
With expectations for the visit low, much depends on what happens once President Bush returns home. Pending free-trade agreements with Panama, Peru, and Colombia await ratification in Congress, special trade preferences for the Andean countries expire at the end of June, and immigration remains a hot-button political issue. In recent testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue said: “In the coming months, what will be most important is that the United States does no further harm to the already damaged relationship.” As Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy says in a CFR.org Podcast, the United States could benefit from showing “a little bit of humility” in its dealings with the region.