At Summit of the Americas, no trade pact for Bush

His hope of relaunching negotiations hits a big snag as five countries, including Brazil, hold out.

Despite a five-day trip to South and Central America, President Bush was unable to work the same wonders on US-Latin American relations that he did earlier this year on ties to Europe.

Indeed, this trip was unlike Mr. Bush's February journey across the Atlantic, which was widely seen as successful in repairing relations damaged by the US decision to invade Iraq. Instead, the three-country trip that ends Monday has revealed more than anything how distant and dissonant relations with much of the hemisphere - in particular South America - have become.

"The sense one has after these few days that Bush spent in the region is that Latin America is very, very far from Washington," says Felix Peña, a specialist in international economic relations in Buenos Aires. "It's not good for anyone involved, but the events don't seem to allow any other conclusion."

At last weekend's Summit of the Americas in this seaside city, Bush did not get the green light he sought for a relaunching of hemispheric trade negotiations. What came out of the unusually obdurate talks - which nearly ended in failure - was more of a yellow light.

A majority of countries signed on to language in a final summit document that calls for reviving long-stalled negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas sometime next year. But five countries - including summit host Argentina and regional giant Brazil - insisted that conditions are not ripe to proceed toward the FTAA.

As part of his trip, Bush had also sought to address US concerns about signs of instability in the region, including in Bolivia. In presidential elections there next month, voters could elect an Indian rights activist who advocates legalization of coca growing and nationalization of the natural-gas industry.

But with the free-trade topic dominating conversations, it was unclear how much attention Bush was able to draw to Bolivia in Argentina or Brazil, where Bush met with President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva after the summit. Both countries have influential ties to Bolivia.

While at the Summit of the Americas, Bush was also unable to deny Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez a significant piece of the stage. The self-described enemy of "American imperialism" used the platform to amplify his socialist agenda and even warn of what he said are "undeniable" US military plans to invade his country.

At the summit's end, which was hours beyond schedule because of the difficulty in reaching a final communiqué, Mr. Chávez crowed that Bush was "the great loser" of the event. The summit was no triumph for Chávez, however, since he had vowed the meeting would be the "tomb" of the free-trade area. Even Argentine officials, while opposing a return to talks on the FTAA under current conditions, acknowledged the project is "not dead" since more than two dozen of the hemisphere's countries favor moving toward completion of the trade agreement.

But Chávez did manage to speak for two hours before an estimated 25,000 gathered at a "counter summit" Friday that focused on fighting poverty and US-style capitalism. In comparison, Bush was virtually unseen by the Argentine public, except in televised shots of his arrival and departure.

At a bilateral meeting Friday with Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, Bush did make a point of voicing his admiration for Emmanuel "Manu" Ginobili, the Argentine NBA player with the champion San Antonio Spurs. In describing "Manu" as someone giving Americans a positive image of Argentina, Bush seemed to be making a point about another Argentine star athlete, soccer player Diego Maradona, who even as Bush spoke was headlining the anti-American "people's summit" across town.

Brazil's President Lula threw cold water on Chávez's tactics, refusing to join him in declaring the FTAA dead. But only hours before receiving Bush, Lula did the United States no favors eitherHe insisted that now is no time to set a return to FTAA negotiations, given that crucial talks on global trade liberalization are set for Hong Kong next month. Those talks are supposed to address the issue of US and European Union farm subsidies, which are of crucial importance to developing agricultural powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina.

"When I was invited to this meeting of 24 hours, the theme was to be jobs, jobs, jobs," a visibly annoyed Lula told reporters shortly before leaving the summit early on Saturday. "Nowhere was it mentioned that the theme would be the FTAA."

The leaders of 34 countries did approve an "action plan" with 60 "specific actions" that countries are to take to encourage poverty reduction and job creation.

But some analysts like Mr. Peña of Buenos Aires fear the media's focus on some rather fine and political differences in trade policy could give publics the impression that nothing of importance to average citizens was discussed or decided.

"It would have been more interesting for the public and made the summit seem more relevant if there had been a grand public debate on the issues that really matter to people, like how to create jobs and promote prosperity," Peña says. "Instead, the impression left is that the big debate is ideological, when that's neither the case nor what is important to people."

Several officials from South American countries said privately they did not think a rapid return to FTAA negotiations was really a high US priority.

What does seem important to Bush is heading off any new trouble spots in the region that could lead to instability. That is one reason the White House is said to be worried about the Bolivian presidential elections and the candidacy of Indian-rights advocate Evo Morales. Talk of a potential Morales victory is pumping fresh steam into a proposal by the wealthier, less-indigenous portion of the country to secede - something that some US officials worry would not only cause conflict in Bolivia, but also unsettle the Andean region.

Bush is to conclude his Latin America trip Monday with a stop in Panama. The country is considering an expansion of the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships.

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