- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tomorrow, President Bush leaves on a weeklong trip to Latin America, the longest visit to the region of his presidency. Although 11 leadership elections since Mr. Bush’s last visit have altered the political landscape, he will arrive with the same commitment to the Summit of Americas vision for free trade and prosperity in the hemisphere. Mr. Bush will visit five countries with whom the United States enjoys strong relations — Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

The trip has the overtones of a battle for political influence with Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Hugo Chavez (who has made clear his intention to lead an anti-Bush protest in Argentina when Mr. Bush is in neighboring Uruguay). Mr. Bush’s plan for tens of millions of dollars to assist with education, housing and health care certainly runs contrary to the “imperialist” image that Mr. Chavez has painted of the United States. But the American president’s aid package, itself less substantial than the oil largesse that Mr. Chavez has lavished on his allies, won’t overcome the rampant anti-Americanism in the region.

The best countervail to Mr. Chavez’s growing influence is the success of Latin America’s other left: democratically elected leaders who adhere to liberal, free-market economic policies. The countries selected for Mr. Bush’s trip, particularly Brazil and Mexico, which have the region’s two largest economies, spotlight U.S. willingness to work with leaders from the left and right of the political spectrum — Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, respectively — so long as they govern according to democratic and free-market principles. U.S. interests in the region go far beyond the Venezuelan firebrand; policy-makers shouldn’t let Mr. Chavez drive Latin America policy.

In Brazil, Mr. Bush will talk ethanol and the Doha round. Uruguay has a record of democracy, and Guatemala joined the coalition in Iraq. In Colombia, the largest recipient of U.S. aid and the strongest U.S. ally in the region, Mr. Bush will reiterate his commitment to a free-trade agreement, but the real work for that accord will take place back in Washington.

Mr. Bush will want to talk about immigration with Mr. Calderon, but knowing the Mexican president’s interest in exporting his labor force — and Mr. Bush’s eagerness to import it — little of value can be expected to come from that discussion. More importantly, Mr. Bush should emphasize the importance of the success of Mr. Calderon’s economic policies. On Monday, Mr. Bush correctly noted that many in Latin America “have seen little improvement in their daily lives.” Indeed, when solid macroeconomic growth doesn’t lead to a reduction in poverty, the poor become disaffected and turn toward more radical leaders, like Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who very nearly defeated Mr. Calderon, or Mr. Chavez.

More urgent foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East have inevitably overshadowed Latin America, and the Bush administration will continue to face questions about “losing” the region. This trip, with several one-on-one meetings, will be an opportunity for Mr. Bush to change that perception.

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