BRASILIA, Brazil — Despite a five-day trip to South and Central America, President Bush was unable to work the same wonders on U.S.-Latin American relations that he did earlier this year on ties to Europe.
Indeed, this trip was unlike Bush's February journey across the Atlantic, which was widely seen as successful in repairing relations damaged by the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Instead, the three-country trip that ends today has revealed more than anything how distant and dissonant relations with much of the hemisphere — in particular South America — have become.
"The sense one has after these few days that Bush spent in the region is that Latin America is very, very far from Washington," says Felix Pena, a specialist in international economic relations in Buenos Aires. "It's not good for anyone involved, but the events don't seem to allow any other conclusion."
At last weekend's Summit of the Americas, Bush did not get the green light he sought for a relaunching of hemispheric trade negotiations. What came out of the unusually obdurate talks — which nearly ended in failure — was more of a yellow light.
A majority of countries signed on to language in a final summit document that calls for reviving long-stalled negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas sometime next year. But five countries — including summit host Argentina and regional giant Brazil — insisted that conditions are not ripe to proceed toward the FTAA.
As part of his trip, Bush had also sought to address U.S. concerns about signs of instability in the region, including in Bolivia. In presidential elections there next month, voters could elect an Indian rights activist who advocates legalization of coca growing and nationalization of the natural-gas industry.
But with the free-trade topic dominating conversations, it was unclear how much attention Bush was able to draw to Bolivia in Argentina or Brazil, where Bush met with President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva after the summit. Both countries have influential ties to Bolivia.
While at the summit, Bush was also unable to deny Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, a significant piece of the stage. The self-described enemy of "American imperialism" used the platform to amplify his socialist agenda and even warn of what he said are "undeniable" U.S. military plans to invade his country.
At the summit's end, which was hours beyond schedule because of the difficulty in reaching a final communique, Chavez crowed that Bush was "the great loser" of the event. The summit was no triumph for Chavez, however, since he had vowed the meeting would be the "tomb" of the free-trade area. Even Argentine officials, while opposing a return to talks on the FTAA under current conditions, acknowledged the project is "not dead" since more than two dozen of the hemisphere's countries favor moving toward completion of the trade agreement.
In tough remarks aimed at Chavez, Bush on Sunday called for Latin America to choose between competing futures — an American-supported "vision of hope" and another that "seeks to roll back the democratic progress of the past two decades."
Bush spoke before Brazilian business leaders, diplomats and students at the luxury Blue Tree Park Hotel here in the capital, and did not mention Chavez by name. But his barbs at Chavez were clear.
Bush's remarks were also directed more generally at Latin America, where recent financial shocks have led to disenchantment in young democracies — Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina, in particular — that have not delivered the social and economic justice expected at their births two decades ago. The comments underlined the administration's worries that the region might slip into the authoritarianism of the past, or that other leaders like Chavez might emerge.
"Only a generation ago, this was a continent plagued by military dictatorship and civil war," Bush said. "Yet the people of this continent defied the dictators, and they claimed their liberty."
At a bilateral meeting Friday with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, Bush did make a point of voicing his admiration for Emmanuel "Manu" Ginobili, the Argentine NBA player with the champion San Antonio Spurs. In describing "Manu" as someone giving Americans a positive image of Argentina, Bush seemed to be making a point about another Argentine star athlete, soccer player Diego Maradona, who even as Bush spoke was headlining the anti-American "people's summit" across town.
Brazil's President Lula threw cold water on Chavez's tactics, refusing to join him in declaring the FTAA dead. But only hours before receiving Bush, Lula did the United States no favors either. He insisted that now is no time to set a return to FTAA negotiations, given that crucial talks on global trade liberalization are set for Hong Kong next month. Those talks are supposed to address the issue of U.S. and European Union farm subsidies, which are of crucial importance to developing agricultural powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina.
The leaders of 34 countries did approve an "action plan" with 60 "specific actions" that countries are to take to encourage poverty reduction and job creation.
Bush is to conclude his Latin America trip today with a stop in Panama. The country is considering an expansion of the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships.
Contributing: Elisabeth Bumiller and Larry Rother, New York Times News Service