WASHINGTON, USA (IPS/GIN) – ”Too little, too late” appears to be the consensus view among Latin America specialists about President George W. Bush’s six-day tour of the region, which began Mar. 8 when he boarded Air Force One bound for Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The trip, which will also take him to friendly countries like Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, is being billed by the White House as an opportunity to show that Bush really does care about Washington’s southern neighbors, notwithstanding his five-and-a-half-year pre-occupation with the “war on terror” and Iraq.

“He has been involved and committed to Latin America throughout his presidency,” declared his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, somewhat defensively at a briefing here earlier this week.


“It’s not gotten the attention it deserves. That’s one of the reasons we’re doing this trip,” he added, noting that the president was particularly eager to highlight U.S. efforts to promote poverty alleviation, education, and health in the region–rather than his administration’s better-known anti-terror, anti-drugs and trade agenda that appears to have contributed heavily to the growing alienation that Latin Americans feel toward their northern neighbor.

Whether he can succeed in his quest is considered highly doubtful by experts here who do not hesitate to use the word “neglect” when characterizing the administration’s attention to the region, which Pres. Bush himself had declared was a top priority during his 2000 presidential campaign, since the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

“The best that can happen is a few changes on the margins and perhaps he can begin to repair what are very damaged relations and very low level of trust by Latin Americans towards Washington,” said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

The trip follows a series of polls since Pres. Bush’s last trip to South America, where his participation in the November 2005 Summit of the Americas in Buenos Aires, drew huge protest demonstrations, that suggest overwhelming popular and elite disapproval not only of Pres. Bush, but of the U.S. itself.

In a BBC survey conducted late last year, for example, the majority ranging between 51 percent and 64 percent of respondents, of respondents in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico said they had a “mainly negative” view of U.S. influence on the world. The same polls found that slightly over one out of ten Mexicans and Argentines, and three in 10 Chileans and Brazilians said they had a “mainly positive” view.

“The U.S. has never been more isolated from Latin America,” said Larry Birns, president of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, who has observed inter-American ties since the Alliance for Progress under John Kennedy’s administration in the early 1960s. “Under Pres. Bush, Washington has reached the nadir in terms of its cooperation with their Latin American neighbors.”

That estrangement is due not only to Pres. Bush’s hard-line security policies and bullying image, according to Geoff Thale, policy director of the Washington Office on Latin America, but also because of the manifest failure of the so-called “Washington Consensus”–market-friendly and economic and trade policies the U.S. has pushed, in major part through international financial institutions, since the late 1980’s.

“We have to recognize that the policies promoted by 20 years of Washington economic thinking have failed to move toward solving any of the very serious problems of Latin America,” said Mr. Thale who added that that failure has not only damaged U.S. standing and influence in the region, but has also boosted the region’s populist and left-wing movements of which Pres. Bush’s bete noire, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has become the most prominent and provocative leader.

Indeed, countering Pres. Chavez, who has been invited by President Nestor Kirchner to take part in anti-U.S. protests on the Argentine side of the Rio Plata while Pres. Bush is visiting Montevideo, and his promotion of “21st-century socialism” through far more-generous aid packages to friendly governments than Washington has been able to muster, is believed to be one of the primary inspirations for the trip.

“Although Pres. Chavez is not scheduled on the tour, he’s the reason why the trip is being made,” said Mr. Birns. “After years of neglect, the administration finally realized it had a rather durable enemy in Pres. Chavez and began to upgrade the attention it was giving to the region. But it has really all come too late.”

“The most useful thing that Pres. Chavez is doing on the U.S. approach toward Latin America is to spur us to find useful ways to actually be helpful in terms of development and poverty alleviation,” Mr. Thale told IPS, noting that, in his speech previewing the recent trip to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce here, Pres. Bush dwelt almost exclusively on U.S. aid programs to promote those goals.

Among other measures, Pres. Bush said he will soon send a U.S. Navy hospital ship to Central and South America to treat some 85,000 patients; spend $75 million over the next three years to teach young Latin Americans English and bring them to the U.S.; to add $385 million to an existing 100-million-dollar program to help underwrite mortgages for working families in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Central America.

The White House claims that, contrary to the impression that it has neglected development, the administration has doubled aid to the region since 2001 to some $1.6 billion this year, in part due to its Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), under which Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador have so far received tens of million dollars in exchange for implementing so-called economic and political reforms.

But development and human-rights groups here say that the White House’s claim is exaggerated, largely because the 2001 baseline of just $870 million did not include some $400 million under the Washington anti-drug program in Colombia due to an accounting gimmick.

In reality, they say U.S. aid has increased by roughly a third under the Bush administration and lags far behind tiny Venezuela’s largesse. Moreover, nearly half of U.S. aid has been devoted to military and anti-drug security assistance–most of it aimed at bolstering Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, whose government is increasingly tainted by its connections to paramilitary death squads–while development assistance has remained more or less unchanged, according to tallies by the Latin America Working Group here.

“As Mr. Bush looks around in bemusement as to why he isn’t welcomed with open arms in Latin America, he might start looking at his own aid budget,” said LAWF director Lisa Haugaard.

Besides these aid initiatives, Pres. Bush will also announce on the trip’s first leg that his administration will cooperate with Brazil in boosting ethanol production and spreading it to other sugar-producing nations in the region, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, in order to reduce the region’s reliance on foreign–including Middle Eastern and Venezuelan–oil.

But as with the new aid initiatives, Pres. Bush will not offer what the government of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva really wants–the end of U.S. import tariffs on Brazil’s ethanol that, along with subsidies for corn production, protect U.S. ethanol producers from Brazilian competition.

The farm lobby in Congress, whose new Democratic leadership is also likely to make pending trade agreements with Peru, Colombia and Panama more problematic, is far too strong for an increasingly unpopular lame-duck president to challenge. Similarly, the White House, sensitive to deep splits among Republican lawmakers, appears almost certain to shy away from a major push for immigration reform of the kind favored by Pres. Bush and Mexico’s new president Felipe Calderon.

“The Latins realize this is a very, very weak president with very little capital,” Mr. Shifter told IPS. “He doesn’t really have a lot to offer the region; he can just try to stop the relationship from getting worse.”