Good News from Latin America

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

I like to keep an eye on Venezuela's meddlesome leader, Hugo Chavez, also known to his subjects as El Loco. In the process, I have noted with much chagrin that Bush's refusal to just swat that gnat already is allowing him to become influential in his region of Latin America through various means, including his alliance with Fidel Castro, his control of much of the region's oil, and bullying, including incursions into neighboring countries by Venezuelan forces.

Chavez also tends to attempt to rally his people behind him (and tease everyone who knows Bush) by claiming that the United States is about to (do what it ought to have done ages ago and) invade. He often threatens to begin sending his country's oil to China instead of the United States and does, in fact have favorable contracts with that country for selling oil. Most recently, he threatened to give American-made F-16 fighter jets to Cuba or China if the U.S. failed to honor a maintenance contract it had with a previous regime. (Sadly, the government ended up honoring the contract rather than its obligation to simply destroy said jets....)

With our complete failure to stand up to Chavez -- and the looming possibility of Mexico electing an ally of his to the presidency -- it might seem that there is nothing to stem the tide of his influence. Fortunately, it seems that this might be wrong. Despite the usual anti-capitalist slant of the media coverage concerning the recent free trade talks in Argentina, it would seem that Chavez might be premature to claim victory over Bush.

Seldom has news been so distorted against facts. Most of the U.S. media claim that because the 34 states were obstructed from full agreement on a declaration to kick-start free trade by a few holdouts, it's some sort of victory for the chief obstructor, U.S. antagonist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Just by the numbers, it's a false impression. Only five states at the Organization of American States summit in Mar del Plata withheld signing a statement to restart talks for a Free Trade of the Americas pact, and four of those -- Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay -- did so temporarily on valid concerns about farm subsidies.


That leaves just Venezuela obstructing free trade, and on ideological grounds. The real story is that 29 very different states -- making up 90% of the hemisphere's GDP -- endorsed free trade.

Even more encouraging, the summit's most articulate advocates for free trade spontaneously came from Latin American leaders whose nations have already experienced free trade. Among them, Mexico's President Vicente Fox emerged as a star, bluntly warning anti-trade factions they are "out of touch with reality."

Fox should know. Mexico's GDP has nearly doubled and its exports to the U.S. have tripled since the 1994 passage of NAFTA, expanding Mexico's economy to just a hair's breadth below that of Brazil, a country with almost twice Mexico's population.

Central American states south of Mexico aren't stupid, either, and NAFTA's success encouraged them to seek their own free trade pact with the U.S. -- CAFTA. They know how it draws permanent investment and increases business activity across the board, even in industries like coffee not subject to tariffs.

"We did not come here to attend the burial of the FTAA," El Salvador's President Tony Saca defiantly told Chavez at the summit. "Our position is of a total and absolute support of the FTAA. The spirit of integration will prevail."
I love that last quote, coming as it did from the president of tiny El Salvador.

Chavez, that famed fan of Don Quixote, seems to be tilting at windmills himself. Even just the taste of capitalism that some of these countries have had, it seems, has made his oil-financed handouts somewhat less effective as a means of spreading his influence.

This good news does not eliminate our need to get rid of Chavez, although it might buy us time or make the job somewhat easier. Amomg other things, Chavez is thought to want to develop nuclear technology, possibly with Iran's help.

-- CAV

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