Bush's Chavez Challenge

During his first serious presidential trip to Latin America, Bush must largely look past Chavez in order to most effectively reckon with him and his movement.

Only the most ungrounded of observers would expect George W. Bush to obtain during his first serious presidential trip to Latin American-which begins tomorrow-the achievements his father made in the region 17 years ago.

When George H.W. Bush met with his counterparts from the Americas in the fortified, Spanish-colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia, they all embraced an idea starkly antithetical to the Spanish ethos: hemispheric free trade. While some fundamental factors in the region aided that transformation, Washington contributed much to the change of mood.

During his week-long tour of the region, the younger Bush runs the risk of losing sight of broad, longer-term regional goals by focusing excessively, and-more importantly-counter-productively on strengthening resistance to the authoritarian-leaning Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the populist tide he militantly champions.

The optimistic 1990s goal focused on an increasingly unified hemisphere of democratic free-market states. But what we have in the region today is increasing tension between market-oriented and populist-oriented blocs, with a bevy of moderate leftist governments trying to live by the markets but not alienate their allegedly "leftist" populist brethren.

In his first electoral campaign, Bush promised to reverse America's traditional indifference to the region but scuttled those plans after 9/11. The resulting inattention has been worsened by the widespread Latin rejection of Bush foreign policies generally-from the war in Iraq to posturing towards Cuba. Those actions seem to confirm the widely held suspicion that Washington has predatory designs on the world, including the Americas-a point constantly hammered home by Chavez and his followers.

Many Latins have also been turned off by what they consider obsessively combative security-oriented U.S. policies that always focus on "fighting": drugs, terrorism, illegal immigrants, sometimes (it seems) even tourists and would-be overseas students. This "negativism" has overshadowed Washington's attention to the more pressing political, social and economic concerns of Latins. Also, U.S. efforts to promote reforms are often undercut by our consumption of and war against illegal and highly remunerative drugs.

Popular frustration with centuries of unresponsive governments is so great in this region that many are inclined to believe a Chavista-like leader might make things better. The discontent has led to the election of Chavez himself and "clones" in Bolivia, Ecuador and, perhaps, Nicaragua, and near-victories in Peru and Mexico. Tragically, Chavez's own heralded solution is a rehash of authoritarian, statist paternalism that is now ushered in by popular vote and funded by an oil windfall in Venezuela. It has failed everywhere throughout history but is in tune with traditional Latin faith in caudillo, or strongman, rulers.

But despite the old and more current obstacles to U.S. leadership in the region, U.S. officials should avoid over-blowing the Chavez challenge. Although Chavez does command a lot of attention, 2006 polls by Latinobarometro showed he is marginally less popular in Latin America than is Bush, with the former garnering 28 percent approval, compared to the latter's 30 percent. What Chavez at home and abroad has been cagey enough to do is focus on three themes that resonate even with many who do not like him personally. Those are: poverty and inequality in the region, the U.S. responsibility for most of this grief and the hope for the masses in the form of his "twenty-first century socialism." He's right on only the first of the three.

Washington has long fumbled in much of its response to Latin America's changing conditions. On this trip and thereafter, Bush must show a new face, spirit and subtlety to overcome the problems of the past. The president made many of the right promises in a speech on Monday, including a particularly encouraging promise to increase support for Latins who want to study in the United States. Bush's relative successes include the promotion of bilateral trade, a tolerable working relationship so far with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. So there is some room for hope-but perhaps still more skepticism-as to whether the United States will follow through.

Earlier U.S. presidents prohibited the use of our substantial aid to Colombia for fighting the guerrillas that have wrought havoc in much of the country for decades and become drug cartels themselves. Bush wisely reversed that restriction and Uribe and others emphasize that guerrillas have been weakened, along with their drug operations. Officials admit, however, that cutting drug production is very difficult because, like a balloon, when you push it down in one place, it pops up in another.

Still, Colombia is the most overtly pro-U.S. country in a region largely dominated by Chavistas. Under Uribe the economy has grown but still needs U.S. aid and quick passage of the Free Trade Agreement now on the table in Washington. Problems remain, including links to paramilitary groups that have reached high places, but the positive thrust is unmistakable.

In order to effectively counter Chavez and the Chavistas, Bush must largely look past them, focusing instead on the hemisphere as a whole and on projecting a more human and less single-mindedly calculating face than he has in the past. Bush must promote basic reforms, as he promised Monday, that will improve prospects for majorities who will then reject the false promises of the messianic Chavistas.