Has Latin America ever had such a unifying figure?
At political rallies, his visage is held aloft as a beacon to regional independence and self-determination. He's helped forge new trade partnerships to spur economic growth and alleviate poverty. And his leadership has fanned a gale-force electoral trend that's sweeping the hemisphere to topple one pro-Washington government after the next.
Who is this grand inductor of Latin American leftism? Venezuelan fireball Hugo Chavez? Blue-collar Brazilian Lula Ignacio da Silva? Bolivia's coca-farmer president Evo Morales?
It's George W. Bush, the accidental revolutionary.
With the swaggering Texan in the White House, a leftward surge has united Latin America to a degree that T-shirt icon Che Guevara could only dream of.
When Che's ill-fated insurgency ended with his death in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967, his vision of a single, unified, socialist continent remained utterly unfulfilled. U.S.-backed military dictators would rule much of Latin America during the ensuing two decades, and many of Che's followers would be tortured and killed in efforts to overthrow them.
As democracy returned to the region at the end of the Cold War, most Latin American governments rushed to embrace the "Washington consensus" -- market-oriented liberalization policies that cut social spending and privatized national industries in order to pay down national debts. But the formula -- pushed on the region by successive U.S. presidents -- largely failed to deliver the goods, and left entire governments bankrupt and beholden to foreign lenders. For Latin America's angry impoverished masses, already-threadbare social safety nets unraveled further.
"The macroeconomic proposals of the Washington consensus have not been working," says Guillermo Delgado, lecturer in Latin American Studies at UC Santa Cruz. "That model was supposed to create prosperity, and after so many years, such prosperity has not been seen and class polarization has grown deeper."
Sensing opportunity, proponents of new social and political movements in the region began marshalling their forces. Then Bush came along, combining Yankee hubris with a Che-worthy radicalizing touch.
Bush has presided during one of the most significant political re-alignments in the history of the Western Hemisphere. By this summer, every major Latin American nation but Colombia is likely to be run by elected leaders with stronger backgrounds in Marx than free markets. If Cold War-era domino theory has been a bust elsewhere, it's working in Latin America.
Late last year, Bolivian voters overwhelmingly elected as president former coca-grower Evo Morales, founder of Bolivia's Movement Toward Socialism party, who fancies himself a nightmare for the Bush administration.
Then, in January, Chilean voters chose socialist candidate Michele Bachelet, a torture victim of the Pinochet regime, as the nation's first woman president. Leftists now rule as well in Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, and are leading in election campaigns in Peru and in Mexico, the region's electoral grand prize. Even recycled Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega -- "a hoodlum," according to Roger Noriega, formerly the U.S.'s top Latin America official -- appears poised for a possible comeback when Nicaraguan voters go to the polls in November.
Although Latin America's national borders won't melt away anytime soon, Che's vision of pan-Latin cooperation has begun to materialize. Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina recently announced a $20 billion plan to build a transnational gas pipeline through the Amazon.
Chile has opened dialogue with landlocked Bolivia, easing a long-simmering feud over seaport access. Cuba, that tropical bete noir of the White House, still employs doctor diplomacy, sending physicians all over the region, only now it receives billions of dollars worth of Venezuelan oil in return. And Mercosur, a South American common market dominated by Brazil, is rivaling the faltering U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Mercosur member states blocked ratification of the Free Trade Area at the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Argentina. When Bush arrived to deliver a speech at the conference, he was greeted by mobs of angry street protesters who burned American flags, a Burger King outlet and unflattering effigies.
"Fascist Bush!" they chanted, "you are the terrorist!"
Bush's overwhelming unpopularity in Latin America is especially disappointing given that he put Latin American relations at the top of his foreign policy agenda after taking office. No other U.S. president had gone to Latin America for his first visit abroad, and even after Sept. 11, Bush maintained that the United States "has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico." At every turn, he'd trot out his twangy Spanish in order to burnish his Latin cred.
Since then, Latin America has only drifted further south. Support for the U.S. war in Iraq is abysmally low. Only a handful of countries in the region backed the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, and all were minor players with the exception of Colombia, the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
That Washington is willing to spend lavishly on drug eradication in the Andean region but little on development or public health has not earned Bush many friends. His administration is held in low esteem across every sector of Latin American society. In a recent Zogby poll, less than 20 percent of Latin American elites (typically the most politically conservative voters in the region) rated Bush favorably. Only 6 percent said his policies were better than those of his predecessors.
Some analysts attribute Latin America's shift to U.S. negligence, arguing that the Bush administration is so consumed with Iraq that it cannot wield effective diplomatic influence in the region.
"After 9/11, Washington effectively lost interest in Latin America," writes Peter Hakim, President of Inter-American Dialogue, in the journal Foreign Affairs. "Since then, the attention the United States has paid to the region has been sporadic and narrowly targeted at particularly troubling or urgent situations." This interpretation suggests Bush has been an inattentive steward, too busy to notice the mutiny beneath his nose. Worse yet, Hakim says the United States has neither the resources nor the will to alter course.
But Latin America's leftward shift stems from more than White House distraction. It's not that the United States is acting aloof from its neighbors; rather, we're the worst-behaved homeowner on the block. We fly the biggest flag, make the loudest demands, and on top of it all, we don't even like having guests over.
Sure, the United States has treated Latin America as its backyard for 200 years - but now, some members of Bush's own party want to fence it off. House Republicans recently approved a plan to erect a 2,000-mile barrier that would wall off Mexico and the rest of Latin America. The plan isn't expected to survive a Senate vote, but it sums up the current state of north-south relations. And it's been a political windfall for the presidential campaign of Mexico City Mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leading candidate in the July 2 election.
For Lopez Obrador, the border fence proposal is proof that NAFTA is faltering and that outgoing President Vicente Fox was on the wrong end of the rope in his faux-ranchero friendship with Bush. If Lopez Obrador is elected in July, the last domino would fall on Washington's doorstep.
The Bush administration has been most frazzled by the growing regional influence of Venezuelan President Chavez, whom Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened to Hitler.
Chavez has his own nickname for Bush ("Mr. Danger") and he's effectively shaped the American president into his political foil. As Bush pushes the region away, Chavez pulls. The Venezuelan leader has fashioned himself into a kind of Latin American Robin Hood, raking in tanker-loads of petrodollars in order to bankroll vast social programs and regional integration schemes. He's provided oil at subsidized rates to poor countries throughout Caribbean, even sending discounted winter heating oil to low-income residents in Boston and the Bronx -- an act of mockery as much as aid.
The Bush administration's enthusiasm over a 2002 coup attempt that briefly ousted Chavez has created skepticism of U.S. rhetoric about respect for democracy.
At the World Social Forum in Caracas in January, Chavez T-shirts were widespread, along with all the other standard-fare knickknacks of rebellion: Castro hats, Zapatista stickers, and anything red with Che on it. Bush apparel was in short supply.
Granted, he did show up on a few banners and posters that weren't destined for immolation, like one that read "Chavez yes, Bush no!" But 20 years from now, who knows? Latin America may be much better off then. And perhaps he'll finally get a "Gracias Bush," with his face on a silkscreen.
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