President Bush’s visit to Latin America this week highlighted the region’s growing divide: not so much between Left and Right, but between responsible leaders and Latin loonies.

The chief loon is, of course, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. While President Bush was visiting Uruguay, Chavez led an anti-American rally at a soccer stadium in nearby Buenos Aires. Argentinean president Nestor Kirchner, now totally dependent on Chavez’s petrodollars to keep his government afloat, bused in his rent-a-mob piqueteros and Chavez regaled them with some of the pearls of wisdom that, in the past, have included calling Bush a “terrorist,” a “drunk,” an “idiot,” an “imperialist,” and—who can forget—“el Diablo.”

Some thoughtful Latin American commentators, however, remarked how Chavez’s antics contrasted with the productive meetings that Bush conducted with the leaders of Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Uruguay.

In Brazil, an important energy partnership was forged to promote the production of ethanol and to set standards so that it can trade like a commodity and compete with oil on the open market. Brazil is the world leader in the production of efficient sugar-cane-derived ethanol, and such an alliance could create hundreds of thousands of desperately needed jobs there. In the other countries, trade, development, and security issues wound up constructively addressed. Bush also announced new foreign aid initiatives in education, health care, and housing.

Despite all the talk about Latin America’s “leftward shift,” the reality is far more complex. Some of the leaders whom Bush met with, such as Brazilian president Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva and Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez, are unquestionably on the left. But theirs is a social-democratic European version, not Chavez-style authoritarian Marxism. Unlike Chavez, they would rather improve life for their citizens than serve as poster children for adolescent anti-Americanism.

By interjecting himself into other countries’ affairs under cover of a continent-wide “Bolivarian Revolution,” Chavez has soured relations with Brazil, Uruguay, and many other Latin American nations. For example, Chavez encouraged his puppet in Bolivia, Evo Morales, to nationalize his country’s natural-gas resources last year. This didn’t sit well with the Brazilian energy firm Petrobas, which had spent billions of dollars to develop the fields. Argentina’s President Kirchner has also adopted the authoritarian, anticapitalist Chavez model, picking fights with Chile over natural gas and with Uruguay over a paper mill under construction on a shared river.

This meddling has sparked something of a backlash in Latin America, with Chavez-endorsed political candidates losing in the Colombian, Peruvian, and Mexican presidential elections last year. (Chavistas did post victories in Ecuador and Nicaragua.) In Argentina, Kirchner’s minister of finance, Roberto Lavanga, resigned because of the government’s increasingly strong ties to Chavez and its “antibusiness” policies. He has announced that he will run for president later this year.

Chavez does have lots of oil money to throw around, and Latin American leaders will cozy up to him when it serves their political or economic ends. But foreign policy pundits need to keep Chavez in perspective. The combined GDP of Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—all of the countries more or less allied with Chavez—remains far less than that of Florida, the U.S. state where many of their fleeing citizens have prospered.

Chavez isn’t popular. Latinbarometro, a Chilean organization, conducts an annual survey of citizens in 18 Latin American countries and ranks leaders in the Americas according to their popularity. Last year, Brazil’s Lula, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe topped the list. Chavez and Fidel Castro (along with Bush) ranked at the bottom. The same survey showed that the vast majority of Latin Americans favor market economies and democracy.

The fact is that traditional political labels are increasingly irrelevant in Latin America. For example, Chile’s “socialist” President Bachelet is probably to the right of the U.S. Democratic Party on most issues. She has repeatedly emphasized her commitment to the Chilean pro-market, free-trade economic model that has generated 6 percent annual GDP growth over the past two decades and cut poverty in half.

The popular Bachelet could prove to be a real asset in the region by pulling other left-leaning leaders back toward the sensible center. “Let’s admit it, comrades, modernity and globalization are not an imperialist invention. They are realities and it is up to us to turn them into opportunities,” she recently told an international gathering of socialist leaders.

Even if the Latin American political situation isn’t as bad as the media make it out to be, the U.S. could play a more constructive role in the region. Congress needs to ratify the free-trade agreements that the Bush administration has signed with Colombia, Panama, and Peru. To fail to do so would undermine three of our strongest allies and do great damage to our regional reputation. We must also lower the agricultural tariffs and subsidies that stymie growth and make us look like free-trade hypocrites to many in Latin America—especially the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on Brazil’s sugar-derived ethanol.

We should take these actions not because they’re good for Latin America, but because they’re good for us. Newly released Commerce Department figures show that U.S. exports to Mexico and Chile have risen by 223 percent and 88 percent, respectively, since the U.S. signed free-trade pacts with those countries in 1993 and 2004. Free trade also lowers prices for U.S. consumers. And if Latin American nations can get their economies growing, it will alleviate much of the illegal-immigration pressure that the U.S. faces and create vast new markets for our goods and services.

The U.S. should ignore Hugo Chavez’s taunts and not give him the attention that he so desperately craves. Instead, we should do exactly what President Bush did on his trip this week: quietly find constructive ways to work with the serious, responsible leaders of Latin America who want to improve their citizens’ lives and foster better relations with their big brother in El Norte.


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