At the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, a rock star welcome awaited Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, while jeers and hisses greeted President Bush. The contrast showed that the United States still has a lot of spade work left to do south of the border.
But then weeding the region of Communism — like painting the Golden Gate Bridge — is a never-ending task. For almost a century the United States has played Whack-a-Mole with Leftist leaders in Latin America. There was Cuba in the 1950s, Bolivia in the 1960s — when the CIA took out Che Guevara. In the 1970s, Allende arose in Chile while, in the 1980s, the Sandinistas swept into Nicaragua. Along the way the Shining Path in Peru, Liberation Theologians in El Salvador and guerrillas in Guatemala have all sought to win the hearts of Latin Americans with high-toned words and low-brow tactics.
For people struggling to stay alive, the allure of Communism will always be seductive. Its Robin Hood promises — more for the poor, less for the rich — offer a dream world. But it's a dream that never comes true. Cronyism and corruption at the top and a lack of education and focus at the bottom have historically undermined any attempt to establish a Marxist utopia. And those who seek it, like those who chase the siren call, end up with splintered ships of state.
Bush's task at the Summit of the Americas was not to spar with Chavez. The Venezuelan thug doesn't merit such stature. But the president's task from now on should be to court the other 32 heads of state there. As he has done with President Vicente Fox of Mexico, he must personalize as many relationships as possible, remind leaders what they already know — that progress must be based on sound economic principles — and then try to lay the groundwork for future joint endeavors to further mutual interests. America has lost several friends in the international community. The country must make new ones.
Chavez has called Bush "Mr. Danger." The president should revel in the monicker, especially when in the room with the despots of the region. The United States will always be viewed as the "Colossus to the North." It comes with the territory of being the world's only super power. But there are enough common threads between Latin America and the United States — including the president's own faith in Christianity — to weave solid relationships.
As long as there is poverty, Latin America will be ripe for the rhetoric of revolutionaries.
The president — indeed, the United States itself — must convince its "good neighbors to the South" that the Shining Path is not only a dead end, but a route that leads all who follow it to economic, moral and political destruction.