George Bush had a tough time of it last weekend in Argentina.
Mass demonstrations of opposition to the President's trade and economic policies greeted his every move. And even inside the cloistered gathering rooms of luxury hotel where the the Summit of the Americas was convened, Bush was the odd man out. Leaders of Latin American countries, many of them elected because of their explicit opposition to the American President's approach, made it clear that Bush will have a hard time establishing a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americans that his campaign contributors so desperately seek.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
When he ran for the presidency in 2000, Bush benefited from the claim that he spoke Spanish and understood better than most politicians how to relate to the countries and the peoples of the South. As a candidate, Bush delivered a major policy address in which he complained that "Latin America often remains an afterthought of American foreign policy," and declared, "Those who ignore Latin America do not fully understand America itself. And those who ignore our hemisphere do not fully understand American interests."
Unfortunately, four years into the Bush presidency, it is now clear that the suggestion that Bush would seek to understand and work with Latin America--perhaps even in the language of many of the region's countries--was merely another example of Karl Rove's campaign spin.
When he does not have a script in front of him, Bush can barely mumble a restaurant order in Spanish. And his mastery of the intricacies of the western hemisphere is even less impressive.
Bush continues to peddle discredited proposals for progress in Latin America, such as privatization of public services and the conversion of family farms to factory farms. And, of course, he continues to promote a free-trade agenda that allows corporations to hop from country to country in search of the lowest wages and the least restrictive environmental and worker-safety protections.
What Bush and his aides do not recognize is that the people of Latin America are already well aware that the president's prescriptions do not work. The North American Free Trade Agreement has been a dismal failure for Mexico, where wages for industrial workers actually fell after deal was put into place in 1994 and where small farmers have been driven from the land in record numbers as a result of trade policies that have flooded the market with cheap beans and corn. As a result of NAFTA, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have been forced to make the painful choice to abandon their country and to enter the United States seeking work.
Just as Mexicans understand the devastating impact of the free trade policies Bush is promoting, so Bolivians understand the devastating impact of the privatization policies that the president talks up, and so Argentines understand the devastating impact of the structural adjustment policies that Bush claims are necessary.
In short, the president went to Latin America with a program that was outdated and wholly unworkable program and he tried to sell it to the people who have suffered through the experiments that have proven the program's flaws.
Bush has become the president he warned against in the 2000 campaign – the president who ignores the experiences and the concerns of Latin America because he "(does) not fully understand America itself."