On the Road With Bush and Chávez

By Fernando Báez, the author of the forthcoming book “A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-Day Iraq.” This article was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11/03/07):

WHEN I was a little boy in San Félix de Guayana, a Venezuelan village on the banks of the Orinoco, the doctors who worked in the poorest communities were from the United States. My father, an honest lawyer who was unemployed his entire life, felt a genuine sense of pride in the United States, and in time, he transmitted this pride to me. One of the first books he ever gave me, covered in an olive-green dust jacket and stamped with gold-foil letters, was an illustrated biography of John F. Kennedy, his personal hero.

All of this feels like nostalgia now. Today, the doctors in my hometown are Cuban.

One of the most significant battles to determine future relations between the United States and Latin America is being waged at this very moment, under a cloud of old antagonisms and with pitfalls lurking at every turn. President Bush’s Latin American tour — he is scheduled to visit Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico before returning home on Wednesday — is a diplomatic counterattack, clearly aimed at the growing influence of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez.

The ultimate goal of this tour is to create an alliance that would give Brazil, the world’s 10th-largest economy, a key, if restrained, regional and global role. Supported by the four other nations Mr. Bush is visiting, Brazil would balance Mr. Chávez’s growing radical influence.

Here in Caracas, the debate is intense and never-ending when it comes to this peculiar struggle for control over the economies and the sources of energy in the hemisphere. I must confess that I share the skepticism of the many Venezuelans who do not believe that any real changes or diplomatic miracles will take place in the region.

In the streets and cafes, Mr. Chávez’s supporters repeatedly invoke Simón Bolívar’s phrases about imperialism. But this is not the scared, defensive rhetoric of the days when America was seen as an unstoppable force. Rather, the tone is usually one of exasperation.

Unfortunately, I think Mr. Bush’s efforts to turn this tide are too late. All the last-minute gestures of good will — like the pledge last week of $385 million to help underwrite mortgages for working families in the region and to send a Navy hospital ship, the Comfort, on a tour of 12 ports — are simply not enough to take back the aimless, lost years that have passed us by.

Time is the one thing that the current White House administration has most flagrantly wasted, and given the electoral campaign that looms on the horizon, the Republicans’ rush to reactivate the dialogue with Latin America isn’t seen as a step forward in the development of constructive policies. On the contrary, the visit seems to underscore an ever-growing discrepancy between American desires and those of the leftist movement championed by Venezuela along with Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Anti-American sentiment, always strong in Latin America, has only grown more acute in recent times, largely because Washington has treated us with indifference and disrespect since 9/11. The American obsession with the Middle East undermined whatever basis there was for a sustained continental integration. Money once spent on foreign aid programs that not only fought drug trafficking but also supported education and social justice has been diverted to the war on terrorism.

President Bush has arrived in a region with some 570 million inhabitants, of whom at least 40 percent are living in poverty and 50 million subsist on less than a dollar a day. There are more than 30 million indigenous people, a forgotten population that represents perhaps 80 percent of the most desperately impoverished even though many of them are members of tribes and residents of villages that share their lands with oil and mining companies.

Will Mr. Bush help to change this? Poor people believe that someone who builds a wall along the border with Mexico is not the kind of person who has faith in the benefits of free trade agreements.

Hugo Chávez also went on tour last week, holding a rally in Buenos Aires at the same time Mr. Bush was just across the Río de la Plata in Montevideo, Uruguay. The event was planned by Argentina’s president, Nestor Kirchner, and was clearly intended to signal that American efforts to form a friendly bloc in Latin America will be countered by Mr. Chávez’s radical networking.

In the papers and on TV here, there is lively debate over the reasons for Mr. Chávez’s trip, and over the wisdom of his trying to pre-empt Mr. Bush. But I expect Mr. Chávez will come out on top — his great talent is adapting to circumstances quickly and reading the crowd, two things American policy makers in Latin America have never been good at.

The rival visits were fitting, as Mr. Chávez was the furtive impulse behind Mr. Bush’s tour. The American strategy is about seeming to pay attention, not about overcoming the tunnel vision that has characterized the Bush State Department’s view of Latin America. For this, and for so many other reasons, I count myself among those who have resigned themselves to another lost opportunity, another failure to effect real change.