Muchas gracias Mr Bush

Muchas gracias Mr Bush

18th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Almost everyone in Latin America agrees: George W Bush left the region more or less to its own fate.

In time-honoured tradition, the newly elected US president will visit Mexico shortly after his inauguration.

Barack Obama has already met with President Felipe Calderón in Washington this week. To date, the Obama administration's policies on Latin America have remained something of a mystery. But one thing is certain: in the throes of the international war on terror, his predecessor George W Bush paid little attention to the United States' backyard. Has the outgoing president inadvertently given the region something to be grateful for?

Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, his primary focus was the international war on terror; the Latinos disappeared from the political agenda. This represents quite a radical departure for US foreign policy.

In the 20th century, and certainly during the Cold War Era, Washington unashamedly intervened in Latin American politics to help loyal allies into power and to keep communism at bay. This could take the form of diplomatic pressure, support for a coup and the subsequent dictatorship, an invasion or the deployment of mercenaries.

A friend indeed?
Prior to his only visit in eight years, George W Bush said:

"My message to the labourers and farmers of Latin America is that you have a friend in the United States."
Bush's Brazilian Welcome

But in Latin America they had stopped believing such amicable rhetoric. Farmers, labourers, students, local committees, indigenous peoples and popular fronts had been fighting for years against neo-liberalism, globalisation, privatisation, open borders, US imperialism and the so-called "Washington consensus", the US-propagated idea that the free market would take care of everything. In Latin America, only wealthy businessmen and corrupt politicians had profited from this credo.

Anti-Bush protests in Latin America"Down with Bush! Murderer!" was one of the slogans chanted in a demonstration against America and Bush. It was during his terms in office that discontent in the region was translated into political power. In 2002, Ignacio Lula da Silva - a socialist trade union leader and the hero of left-wing Latin America - came to power in Brazil. Six months later the left swept to victory in neighbouring Argentina and a year after that in Uruguay. Along with Chile and Venezuela, this meant that 70 percent of the population of South America was being run by left or centre-left governments. But the "worst" was yet to come.

Barack Obama and Felipe CalderónA devilish confrontation
In October 2006, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez famously denounced Bush as "the devil" at the UN General Assembly. Reeling from this affront, the US State Department was forced to face up to the fact that its president had surrendered the initiative in Latin America to a socialist caudillo with close ties to Fidel Castro, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other leaders from what the US branded the "Axis of Evil". One after another, countries in the region opted for left-wing leaders, some of them socialist and fervently anti-American.

Bolivia's president Evo Morales spoke of "the second liberation" of Bolivia and Latin America. US influence remains strong, especially in economic terms. Many countries are dependent on trade with the US, even the manifestly anti-American Venezuela.

Howls of derision
Nevertheless, something has changed. Latin America's regional identity is stronger than ever, as is its aversion to Washington. When Bush wanted to include the southern half of the continent in an old American dream of a free trade agreement for the Americas, stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, he was met with howls of derision. A mass demonstration in Argentina at the end of 2005 sounded the death knell of the proposed continental free trade zone.

Latin America has politically distanced itself from the north. First and foremost this is the achievement of an electorate which has become increasingly emancipated, and which has dared to set out on its own course without bowing to the preferences of Washington. But it is also the inadvertent achievement of the US administration, which has loosened its grip on the region for the first time in recent history. So perhaps Latin America does have something to thank Mr Bush for after all.

Edwin Koopman
Radio Netherlands

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