Mar 19, 2007
During his recent tour of five Latin American countries, George Bush was greeted by hostile demonstrations. In Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, riot police were deployed against protesters, who called Bush a murderer and burned effigies of him. A few thousand protesters tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Mexico, knocking down steel barriers and throwing gasoline bombs. Scared by the militancy of these protests, Mexican authorities closed schools and blocked roads in Merida, where Bush met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been publicly criticizing the Bush administration, seized the opportunity and went on his own tour of Latin America. As Bush was hiding behind police lines in Uruguay, for example, Chavez spoke in neighboring Argentina to tens of thousands of people, who filled a soccer stadium and cheered him on as he denounced Bush and U.S. policy toward Latin America.
Perhaps in an effort to compete with Chavez, Bush used a language that is quite unusual for him. He said it was a “scandal” that tens of millions of people in the region had to live on less than two dollars a day. And he promised his government’s help to ensure “social justice” for Latin America’s poor.
It was easy for Bush’s critics to point out that U.S. aid to Latin America, 1.6 billion dollars per year, was less than what the U.S. spends on the Iraq war in just one week. Not to mention that, of course, this “aid” is nothing but a small crumb compared to the enormous profits U.S. corporations extract from the region.
In fact, Bush had nothing to propose during this tour other than what is already going on: “free trade” with the U.S., he said, was the way to lift Latin America out of poverty.
No wonder nobody was impressed by this rhetoric. Mexico, for example, has officially had a free trade agreement with the U.S., known as NAFTA, for more than ten years and sends 88% of its exports to the U.S. Yet, unemployment and poverty have only increased in Mexico in the past decade, while food has become significantly more expensive for the population. As a result, every year 400,000 Mexicans are forced to cross the border to find work in the U.S.
It’s not that a formal agreement like NAFTA really matters anyway. Regardless of whether governments sign trade agreements or not, Latin America’s economy is dominated by the U.S. About half of the whole region’s exports go to the U.S. This is true also for Chavez’s Venezuela, which sells 70% of its oil to the U.S.
Corporations based in the U.S. and their subsidiaries are also often the biggest private employers in Latin American countries, where they take advantage of conditions typical throughout the region: low wages and a lack of rights for workers. Not surprisingly, in these countries, most of the managers and government officials overseeing these conditions are educated and trained in the U.S.
It’s for good reason that Latin America has been called “the U.S.’s backyard.” For a century and a half, the U.S. ruling class, with the help of its local cronies, has been draining the wealth of the whole continent.
That’s why, in the end, it doesn’t really matter what Bush said publicly when he visited Latin America – or even that he visited at all. And, in fact, the real issue behind Bush’s trip was not Latin America itself. The real purpose of this little show was to divert attention, inside the U.S., from the embarrassment that the Iraq war has become for the Bush administration.