- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rode to great effect the tide of discontent last week while in Argentina for the Summit of the Americas. Speaking before an audience of about 25,000 protesters in a soccer stadium, Mr. Chavez appeared to preside over the assembled crowd and masterfully cast himself as the protagonist of the summit and the story of the day. The Venezuelan leader catapulted himself to the same level of importance as Mr. Bush, by anointing himself the head of a “counter-summit” on Friday.

“It’s Bush vs. Chavez as 33 heads of state meet Friday for the Summit of the Americas,” read a Thursday sub-headline in the Christian Science Monitor. Indeed, the press seized on that catchy image as a theme of the gathering of 34 (not 33) leaders in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Mr. Chavez was surely tickled by the exposure, especially since he is trying to spread his so-called Bolivarian Revolution across the Americas.

The tens of thousand of people that flooded the streets of Mar del Plata in protest did not gather in deference to Mr. Chavez, though. Indeed, it was clear there would be widespread protests in Argentina to coincide with the summit, since one of the main topics of discussion would be the controversial creation of a free-trade zone across the Western Hemisphere. Also, Mr. Bush’s popularity has dipped sharply in Latin America. Other leaders passed on the opportunity for demagoguery, but not caudillo Chavez, who has staked his presidency on that dark art.

The people of Latin America are slowly recovering from economic troubles. In the case of Argentina, the economy was significantly liberalized under the presidency of Carlos Menem in the 1990s, as corruption reached levels unprecedented even by Argentine standards. Unfortunately, Argentina was considered the darling of Washington and the International Monetary Fund at that time. The economic collapse that followed is widely seen as being caused by economic liberalization and authored by technocrats in Washington. That perception, in addition to the unpopularity of the Iraq war and other issues, drove the protests during the summit.

Despite all the attention on Mr. Chavez, he did not succeed in killing off the prospect of creating the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The other leaders at the summit, even some tough negotiators, still favor the eventual creation of the free-trade zone. “Freer and fairer trade will lift more human beings out of poverty than all of the assistance programs in the world combined,” said Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The Mercosur customs union, which groups Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, is holding out for a better deal from the United States on farm trade. While the Bush administration is willing to negotiate with its neighbors in the Americas on farm tariffs, it wants to address the question of U.S. farm subsidies with other members of the World Trade Organization, so it can reduce those supports in tandem with other industrialized countries. The issue of farm supports, therefore, is creating the impasse for the FTAA, not Mr. Chavez’s influence.

Oil-rich Venezuela does not depend on freer trade for its economic growth, particularly given today’s oil prices, since it is a single-commodity economy. The rest of the continent can not rely on energy resources to drive development and would greatly benefit, at all levels, from lowered barriers for exports. Mr. Chavez is adept at profiting from popular despair and frustration, but he fails to uphold the broader interests of the hemisphere — not to mention his own people.

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