President Bush is going to Latin America, and that has inspired a round of commentary in the mainstream press. A New York Times editorial urges the President to focus on democracy, human rights and social justice, and applauds the recent doubling of U.S. aid to the region. Democracy and social justice and a dollop of aid (the current budget of $1.6 billion is barely 1 percent of spending by Latin governments on health and education) are good things. But from President Bush they are bound to come across as mere sound bites (as even the editorial writer seems to acknowledge) given the level of distrust and cynicism about this Administration in the region. Worse they will seem a hapless answer to President Chavez of Venezuela's practical steps to buying allies - making a market for Argentina's bonds, issuing fat contracts to Brazil's largest construction contractors, and ensuring cheap access to oil and highly trained Cuban doctors for Bolivia.
The Washington Post got the story closer to right: Bush should make some real commitments, especially to governments that are on board with the U.S. ideologically, but aggrieved by U.S. indifference and pressured by renewed forces of populism and protectionism. He should tell the Brazilians he will fight the farm lobby here to reduce tariffs on sugar-based ethanol (and sugar for that matter); should work with the Democrats in Congress to pass the free trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and Panama; and should actually put some White House muscle behind an immigration bill to resurrect good relations with Mexico (the main point of Jorge Castaneda's Washington Post column).
But something is still missing - a message for the people of the region - especially the poor majority who support Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and Ortega in Nicaragua, and came close to electing López Obrador in Mexico and Humala in Peru. Latin America's poor majority has been victimized by centuries of inequity and injustice (a forthcoming CGD book, Fair Growth: Economic Policies for Latin America's Poor Majority, further develops this idea. See also, Washington Contentious: Economic Policies for Social Equity in Latin America) and looks to the U.S. as a place where the little guy can get ahead. President Bush should brag about that aspect of American life, and ask his hosts how North Americans can help Latin America create societies where social mobility reigns. I doubt the answer will be confined to aid and sugar and more rights of legal entry. It will also be about access to credit and mortgages (help on mortgages and housing was a smart idea); locally accountable education systems; reducing tax evasion; and supporting small business. It will be about building societies like the U.S. - far from perfect, but mostly fair as well as free.