Pubdate: Thu, 08 Mar 2007
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: 2007 The Scotsman Publications Ltd
Author: Jeremy McDermott


Latin America, the "backyard" of the United States, has slipped out of
Washington's control and the US president, George Bush, today mounts a
last-ditch effort to regain influence with his longest ever visit to a
region increasingly in the hands of foes such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

"It's a calculated effort to become more proactive in confronting
Chavez and shoring up US allies in the region," said Cynthia Arnson,
of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington.

The White House insists the trip is about supporting democratic
nations in the region and focusing attention on poverty. "The fact is
that tens of millions of our brothers and sisters to the south have
seen little improvement in their daily lives, and this has led some to
question the value of democracy," Mr Bush told the US Hispanic Chamber
of Commerce last week.

Today Mr Bush visits the regional superpower Brazil, in the hands of
moderate left-winger Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, universally known as
"Lula". Whilst Lula's relations with Mr Chavez are good, Brazil has
maintained cordial relations with Mr Bush and is interested in getting
access to the US market.

While Washington has been focused on the war in Iraq, which is very
unpopular across much of Latin America, China has emerged as a major
trading partner for the region.

"The US is not the go-to guy anymore from the Latin American
perspective," said Julia Sweig, at the Council on Foreign Relations in
New York.

The second stop in Uruguay is again about trade, but also about poking
Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, in the eye. Mr Kirchner is a
Chavez ally and is currently engaged in a bitter border dispute with
Uruguay. However, Mr Kirchner will get his revenge - Argentina is
hosting a regional integration summit, with Mr Chavez as guest of
honour, starting on the same day that Mr Bush lands in Uruguay.

Mr Bush has had one unflinching ally in South America, who will duly
receive a visit and a pat on the back. The Oxford-educated Colombian
president, Alvaro Uribe, has allowed the US to maintain a military
presence in the region and has acted as the flagship alternative to Mr
Chavez's radical populism. Mr Uribe has charged Mr Bush some ?400
million a year for the privilege, which has gone to the war on drugs
and Marxist rebels. Colombia also acts as a physical obstacle to Mr
Chavez's plan to reunite the nations liberated by his hero and
inspiration Simon Bolivar, who in the 19th century wrested the Andean
countries from Spanish control. So far Mr Chavez has Ecuador and
Bolivia firmly in his camp and is repairing relations with Peru. He
also has a foothold in Central America with the election at the end of
last year of the Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega. The rest of
the isthmus remains firmly pro-Washington, although many are tempted
by the offer of cheap oil from Venezuela. Guatemala and Mexico are
both decidedly pro-US, hence Mr Bush's visit to them.

Some Washington analysts think the Latin America tour is as much about
diverting attention from Iraq as it is about stroking the ego of a
neglected region.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that Bush's trip reflects in part a
wish to escape endless criticism about the handling of the war in
Iraq," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a
Washington-based think tank.

Mr Bush comes to Latin America with little to offer. Unlike Mr Chavez,
flush with funds from high oil prices, Mr Bush's wallet is empty, all
cash already spent fighting the war on terrorism.

He is ending his term in office in a weakened position, beholden to a
Democrat-controlled Congress. It is worth pondering why he is
bothering with Latin America, a region he has neglected and alienated.

Security sources say that Washington is alarmed at the rise of Mr
Chavez, his arms purchasing spree and increasingly cosy relationship
with Iran and support for its nuclear programme.

BRAZIL - The central theme of the visit may well be ethanol. The US
and Brazil are the top two producers in the world and Brazil has long
used ethanol, made from sugarcane, as a fuel for its vehicles. The US
may go in that direction which would lessen dependence on Venezuelan
oil and undermine Mr Chavez's finances.

URUGUAY - Mr Bush is keen to show respect for a left-wing government
friendly to Washington. Tabare Vazquez, the president, is looking for
support against Argentina with which he is locked in a pollution
battle over paper mills situated on the Uruguayan side of the border.

COLOMBIA - The US has put more than ?2 billion into Colombia in the
past seven years, for the war on drugs, then the war on terrorism, as
President Alvaro Uribe battles Marxist rebels. Neither war has gone

Mr Uribe is also embroiled in a scandal linking his government with
right-wing death squads. Mr Bush will no doubt skim over this, but
Democrats in Washington will not, and they are already questioning the
high levels of aid Colombia receives.

GUATEMALA - The Central American nation has become the storehouse for
cocaine going from Colombia to the US. Mr Bush is keen to get its
government on-side and allow US anti-drug agencies free access and

MEXICO - Mexico will want to talk about migration and the wall that
Washington is erecting along the border. Mr Bush will want to focus on
economic matters and the drugs trade: Mexican cartels are now the most
brutal and sophisticated crime syndicates in the world.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin