- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

As President Bush travelled through Latin America during the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, he was criticized for having given the region so little attention during his presidency. The critics assert that Mr. Bush’s “neglect” has allowed demagogues like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to sweep the region. Indeed, the serious work of the summit — in particular, the goal of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas — was overshadowed by Mr. Chavez’s Friday speech at a soccer stadium in which he railed against U.S.-style capitalism and free-trade agreements. Although the rally addressed by Mr. Chavez was peaceful, rioters threw stones and torched businesses afterwards.

While in hindsight, the Bush administration should have been more engaged in America’s own hemisphere, the critics are overestimating America’s ability to influence the region’s voters. The wave of the left across Latin America has been primarily driven by voter rage over the unabashed political corruption of former administrations, particularly in Argentina and Venezuela. There was little U.S. officials could have done to counter this.

In addition, the critics should also consider the caliber of the leaders the administration is now left to engage with. The region’s leaders are approaching diplomatic debate as they might a boxing or a professional wrestling match, theatrics and all. Before Mr. Bush and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner met during the previous Summit of the Americas, Mr. Kirchner memorably remarked he would “win by a knockout” during his private meeting with Mr. Bush. Shortly before this year’s summit, which brought together the leaders of 34 countries, Mr. Chavez mused that Mr. Bush is afraid of him and that he might sneak up and scare him.

By resorting to such antics, the leaders of some key Latin American countries forfeited the opportunity to have constructive talks with Mr. Bush. Latin American presidents have legitimate grievances they could address with him, including U.S. farm subsidies that narrowly benefit agribusiness and are a burden on both U.S. taxpayers and farmers around the world.

Some of the region’s left-leaning statesmen are willing to have a grown-up discussion, such as the presidents of Brazil and Chile. Chilean President Ricardo Lagos met with Mr. Bush on Friday at the summit and Mr. Bush travelled to Brazil on Saturday to meet with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Unsurprisingly, efforts to create a free-trade area of the Americas remain deadlocked due to popular opposition across the hemisphere to the plan and disagreements over farm trade. U.S. policies may be partly responsible for the lack of progress. But Latin American economies will not be reformed until the peoples of the region come to understand that free trade and economic liberalization are necessary for prosperity and growth.

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