Friday, March 09, 2007

Facing Protest, Bush Attempts to Salvage U.S. Influence in Latin America

As has become expected whenever George W. Bush goes abroad, cities across Latin America are erupting in protest in response to his tour of the region. In Sao Paolo yesterday, an estimated 35,000 took to the streets and were met with tear gas by state security forces.

As the Associated Press reported today,

students, environmentalists and left-leaning Brazilians held a largely peaceful march through the heart of Sao Paulo before police fired tear gas at protesters and beat them with batons. Hundreds fled and ducked into businesses to avoid the chaos, some of them bloodied.

Authorities did not say how many people had been injured, but Brazilian media said at least 18 people were hurt and news photographs showed injured people being carried away.

Protesters said scuffles broke out when some radical demonstrators provoked officers and threw rocks and sticks at them -- but said police overreacted. A police officer who declined to give his name in keeping with department policy confirmed that extremists appeared to cause the confrontations.

Below is some footage of the protest from Youtube.

The stated purpose of Bush’s tour is to “remind people that we care,” as Bush said in an interview Wednesday with CNN En Español. The president went on to say that he worries “about the fact that some say, ‘Well, the United States hasn’t paid enough attention to us,’ or ‘The United States really isn't anything more than worried about terrorism.’ And when, in fact, the record has been a strong record.”

The notion, however, that Bush can bolster the U.S. image by paying a visit to the region is rather laughable, considering how incredibly unpopular he is –- approximately 85% of Latin Americans disapprove of the president and particularly his war policy in Iraq. And with the history of U.S. intervention in the hemisphere, not to mention its imposition of neoliberal economic policies through its influence over the IMF and World Bank, it’s hard to believe that many Latin Americans are concerned that the United States “hasn’t paid enough attention” to the region.

Indeed, in recent years, Latin American politicians who have explicitly rejected the “Washington Consensus” on economic policy have done exceptionally well, with left-leaning populists winning elections in Venezuela, Bolivia, and most recently, in Nicaragua.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs suggests that the trip has several unstated ulterior motives.

“The President is taking the trip at this juncture for a number of pressing, if not particularly strategic reasons,” the Council says.

For starters, with his public approval rating dancing just above thirty percent and the political climate on capital hill [sic] becoming increasingly more chilly to his administration, Bush could—conceivably—naively view his southern visit as a diversion from White House pressures being generated by the Iraq war. Regardless of Bush’s preconceived notion of how he will be received in Latin America, and his awesome capacity for denial, the demonstrably, poorly-informed president will undoubtedly be shocked by the angry anti-Bush demonstrations likely to occur in some of countries which he will be visiting. Bush and his White House handlers have become painfully aware that he is running out of time for substantive initiatives in Latin America to be conjured up, sent to Congress and then implemented. There may be just too much of a handicap to engage in much heavy lifting in order to rehabilitate his administration’s flawed reputation when it comes to inter-American affairs. This trip is a reflection of a frantic attempt to save a foundering Latin American foreign policy and the subsequent reputation which history may not treat all that kindly.
In particular, “Bush hopes to sign trade agreements and other economic measures before his window of opportunity for fast track policy expires on June 30, when the trade decision-making authority will then revert to Congress.”

WSWS also highlights the economic motivation of the trip. Bush will “meet with Brazil’s President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva on the morning of March 9,” WSWS notes, “when the two will visit the Transpetro terminal in Guarulhos, a town outside of the industrial and financial center of São Paulo.”

This bit of presidential tourism is no accident. Transpetro is the largest shipping company in Latin America and Brazil’s main logistical organizer in the transport of fuel, a central theme of the agenda set by Bush and Lula for this visit. A subsidiary of Petrobrás, Brazil’s national oil company, Transpetro handles the transport and storage of petroleum and its derivatives as well as of alcohol and natural gas, operating a fleet of 51 ships, a network consisting of 10,000 kilometers of pipeline and 44 land and water terminals.

Bush’s visit to Brazil, which will be reciprocated with a trip by Lula to Camp David at the end of the month, is expected to put the seal on a plan for a gigantic expansion in the world production of ethanol fuel, based on sugarcane, a technology that is clearly dominated by Brazil. Bush’s visit, thus, could be the beginning of a true revolution in the production of renewable biofuel. Biofuel production has been developing for some time in a number of countries, utilizing wood, animal fat, soybeans, corn and other raw materials.

Regardless of the ultimate goals of his trip however, there’s a good chance Bush will be surprised by the level of resistance to his agenda, both in the streets and in the offices of Latin American leaders that he visits. U.S. influence in the region is steadily eroding, as exemplified by the rising popularity of populists like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. His visit might best be seen as a last-ditch attempt to salvage what is left of the Monroe Doctrine, or America’s historical influence over what it has long considered its “backyard.”

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