President George W Bush, harried on numerous fronts at home, might well rue a summit calendar that sees him spending a weekend with his most verbose antagonist, while nearby a legend of world soccer heads a mass protest against his presence.
Yet if anything should concern him, it is not so much a ballroom dust-up with Hugo Chávez or harangues from Diego Maradona as the distance travelled between promises made four years ago and the limp and lifeless document that is set to be the result of the fourth Summit of the Americas, held in the Argentine coastal resort of Mar del Plata on 4-5 November 2005.
To understand the extent to which Bush has presided over a diplomatic upheaval that has downgraded Latin America from geo-strategic center to abandoned periphery – and seen the region’s fragile political unity dissolve entirely – it is worth tracking back to the third Summit of the Americas, held in Quebec City in April 2001. On that occasion, Bush made his position clear: "I’m going to be very aggressive in supporting a program of free trade in the continent."
Protesters ran amok through the Canadian city, but the newly elected chief – whose first foreign visit as president had been to Mexico – wore the flag of intransigent economic freedom and a Washington-led Americas. By 2005, or even earlier, the entire continent – thirty-four nations (minus Cuba) and 800 million people, with a landmass running from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego – would be joined in a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or ALCA in Spanish).
The plan, first drafted by Bill Clinton in 1994, was to be realized by a Republican ideologue; simultaneously, Otto Reich, a Cuban exile, Bacardi-rum lobbyist and connoisseur of Sun Tzu, was made Bush’s main envoy to the region, which duly trembled.
But in the run-up to the Mar del Plata summit, Bush has admitted already that the World Trade Organization (WTO’s) Doha round is a more suitable forum for progress on dismantling commercial barriers. Which is perhaps just as well for his negotiating team’s health, for although Washington has fellow-thinking enthusiasts across the continent (Mexico, Chile and Canada stand out), it also faces outright opposition (from Venezuela, which is pushing for its "Bolivarian" alternative), and hence depends for a compromise on the offices of its chief diplomatic levers in the region, Brazil and Argentina.
These two, in turn, are run by left-leaning rulers: Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner has led a perpetual battle against the International Monetary Fund, while Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidential election in October 2002 with a very clear message of contempt for a Washington-dominated free-trade area. The FTAA, said Lula in early 2002, "is not a proposal aimed at integration, but an attempt by the US economy to annex the South American economy."
Washington’s "Benign Neglect"
Yet the death of the free-trade bloc is not news. In November 2003, while the world’s powers still focused on Iraq, an inconspicuous meeting of FTAA economy ministers in Miami faced the same deadlock that had scuppered the WTO summit in Cancún months earlier – that no deal could be brokered on scrapping the global north’s farm subsidies in exchange for prising open the markets of the global south. As a result, the Miami meeting agreed to make the terms of the free-trade bloc "flexible".
Bush’s aggression had in any case been diverted. His administration’s shift in strategic interest, hinging of course on 11 September 2001 and its aftermath, has been linked at almost every step by a kind of ghostly fade-out in Latin America. When running for office in 2000, Bush made only one foreign-policy speech on the stump: devoted to the Americas, it sought with some success to woo the Hispanic émigrés of Florida’s Palm Beach.
In his re-election campaign four years later, mentions of the continent, free-trade areas or the cherished bonds with Mexico were absent. The only remaining sites of genuine United States strategic interest had become those perceived to mirror the diagnosis of a middle-eastern security threat: Colombia, where military and anti-narcotic funding is on the rise; Venezuela, rich in oil and governed by a "radical populist" president; and Cuba, largely because Florida remains a swing state.
Into this void, christened "benign neglect" by certain Washington analysts, Latin America has found a political and diplomatic leeway almost without precedent. Time and again, Washington’s wishes have been thwarted without any punishment greater than pained rebuke.
If a defining moment in this emancipation is needed, it could perhaps be found in the meeting of regional leaders that coincided with the April 2002 coup against Chávez: whereas Washington, still guided by Reich, showed a certain eagerness to embrace the putsch, the Latin Americans stood firm by its own Inter-American Democratic Charter – the same charter, incidentally that has been signed in Lima on 11 September 2001, before Colin Powell hastily boarded a plane back home.
Since then, the affronts have been numerous. Mexico and Chile opposed support for military action against Iraq in the United Nations Security Council, but it is hard to see how either has suffered anything more than a slight frostiness. Brazil buried the FTAA, but remains the go-to country for Washington diplomats. Otto Reich, in turn, has been disposed of.
Bush’s Cold Wind
Meanwhile, the ideological divide between north and south in the Americas has widened further. And although a link between the victories of left-wing rulers and Washington’s neglect is as yet tendentious – in truth, the former took power thanks to the social blight left by the Clinton-backed free capital and trade orthodoxy – there are at least two cases where distractedness in the north appears to have allowed a radical alternative to gain ground.
In Bolivia, this can be seen in the largely non-authoritarian response to the ascent of coca-growers’ leader Evo Morales, while, most surprisingly, the principal US involvement in the 15 August 2004 referendum in Venezuelan on Chávez came from the dove-like Carter Center. The comparison with the Henry Kissinger footprint of the 1970s could not be starker.
The legacy of this period now awaits Bush in the breezy south Atlantic. He can expect to be courted and humored by all but one leader (Hugo Chávez predicts a "tasty" encounter), but he has no money to offer, his words will ring hollow and the final statement will be steeped in celestial wisdom. Outside, Maradona, the new PR face of Fidel Castro’s regime – a metamorphosis of Argentine Che Guevara for a football-saturated age – will exhibit his post-rehab, revolutionary persona.
Amidst all the thunder and speechmaking, Bush might even consider that his old epigram of this being the "century of the Americas" has been stolen from him. Another world figure said in November 2004 in Brasília that this would indeed be the century "of Latin America and the Pacific". The speaker was the leader of the new economic power in the continent – Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China.
Ivan Briscoe is editor of the English edition of El País, Madrid. This article was originally published on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit www.opendemocracy.net for more.
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