On Tuesday, March 6, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted an on-the-record media briefing to discuss U.S.-Latin American relations in advance of President Bush's March 8th-14th trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Wilson Center Speakers:
Cynthia Arnson, Director, Latin American Program
Paulo Sotero, Director, Brazil Institute
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute

The Center's three Latin American experts provided analysis on the current political climate in the region—namely the ‘new left' that is emerging—on popular perceptions of the Bush administration and American foreign policy in countries like Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico, and on the noticeable shift that has been taking place in the overall geopolitical relationship between the United States and Latin America over the past five or so years.

Speculating about the intentions behind President Bush's trip to the region, the speakers raised important questions about the possible implications of this trip—both symbolic and political—and about how President Bush's visit will register among Latin Americans, who have generally grown skeptical toward U.S. policies and initiatives in the region. The three specialists offered insightful, candid overviews and comments, after which they fielded questions from about 15 journalists and correspondents.

Cynthia Arnson started the discussion by describing some of the current political trends taking shape in Latin America, particularly the increasing number of left-leaning or populist leaders in the region, which she said was a significant new development—one that already has, and will continue to affect the way Latin America and the U.S. administration do business. While this "swing to the left" has not occurred universally throughout Latin America (Colombia, Peru, and Mexico are notable exceptions), Arnson argued that the results of the thirteen elections that have taken place in the region over the past two years reflect a "widespread dissatisfaction with the social deficits left in the wake of two decades of neo-liberal reform."

Politically, Latin Americans have expressed a deep desencanto, or disenchantment, with the lack of capacity and/or willingness of their leaders to confront the pervasive social and economic problems that factor so highly in their everyday lives. As Arnson explained, "There is probably no issue that serves more as a common denominator defining today's left in the region than the desire to address the massive poverty and social injustice that exist, in varying degrees of severity, throughout Latin America."

As for the role of the United States in the region, Arnson declared that while the Bush administration has demonstrated a growing awareness of the need to focus more seriously on poverty and inequality in Latin America, U.S. policy initiatives in the region have been "uninspiring" and will probably only further entrench the widely-held skepticism Latin Americans have toward the Bush administration. Arnson herself expressed concerns about the depth of the United States' commitment to social justice in Latin America, citing cuts in this year's foreign aid budget and the fact that, with the exception of Colombia, proposed development assistance to the region has been reduced by 25 percent. Spending on child survival and health programs has also been lowered, by 23 percent. "If we're sincere about addressing the social deficits in the region," she said, "this situation has to change."

Arnson concluded on a cautiously optimistic note, emphasizing that American foreign policy in Latin America is shifting and that, with the right tools, perhaps it will begin to more effectively concentrate on what really matters to the majority of Latin Americans—the ability of democracies to deliver on promises of social justice and economic equality.

Paulo Sotero focused on relations between the United States and Brazil, offering his opinions on the upcoming meeting between President Bush and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. According to Sotero, the visit will concentrate almost solely on ways the two countries can increase cooperation on the production of alternative energy sources and expand the ethanol industry. Forty percent of all fuel in Brazil is comprised of ethanol, and it is the world's most efficient, environmentally-friendly producer of this up-and-coming energy source. Given the Bush administration's keen desire to reduce its dependency on foreign oil (as well as, Sotero ventured, its desire to detract attention from the unpopular situation in Iraq) the U.S. has been particularly interested in Brazil, and in forging a healthy biofuels alliance with the Lula government.

Another political dimension of this relationship, said Sotero, is the fact that the Bush administration views Lula as a progressive, yet democratic leader—as left-leaning but still manageable and cooperative. This is important, Sotero explained, due to the growing network of largely anti-American and increasingly cavalier heads of state in Latin America such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Bush sees Lula as a crucial ally, said Sotero, and as a foothold in the achievement of regional stability in the southern hemisphere. He will therefore continue to expend considerable energy in building this relationship.

But is U.S. engagement in Brazil too little, too late? According to Sotero, anti-American sentiment looms large among the majority of Brazilians, and most are highly skeptical toward Bush's courtship of Lula. Many believe it is Bush's need to take the spotlight off Iraq, rather than genuine commitment to Brazil, that is guiding his actions in South America.

Sotero concluded by emphasizing that the relationship is perhaps not too far gone and that a positive U.S.-Brazil partnership could yield substantial benefits for both countries, particularly with regard to their cooperation on biofuels. He also noted that despite the prevalence of anti-Bush sentiment in Brazil, there is a nascent desire among Brazilians to engage with the United States, especially if doing so will result in U.S. recognition of Brazil as the largest, most stable democracy in Latin America.

Finally, Andrew Selee commented on the current state of U.S.-Mexico relations, discussing the likely outcomes from Bush's visit with Felipe Calderón. He stressed that expectations of these talks, among both Mexicans and Americans, are extremely low, especially in comparison to those at the outset of the administration of Vicente Fox. At that time, people had high hopes for the United States and Mexico to develop a close and productive relationship—but were ultimately disappointed as Bush and Fox failed to reach consensus on a migration agreement and prospects cooled after 9/11. Now, Selee explained, the situation is the reverse: Calderón has barely begun his tenure as president (he took office on December 1, 2006), while Bush is entering his ‘lame duck' phase, and so expectations are particularly low with regard to what these two can accomplish over the coming year.

Selee underscored the importance of Bush's upcoming trip to Mexico, however, noting that it will set the tone for the neighboring countries' interactions with one another and help focus their bureaucracies on common enterprises. According to Selee, the top issues will be security, namely dealing with organized crime and creating an environment of cooperation; migration, which is perhaps the biggest concern for Mexicans, both politically and symbolically; and economic issues. Mexico will likely put pressure on the United States about corn and beans, as U.S. corn and beans continue to flood the market in Mexico, putting small farmers in the South out of business. It is also possible that Calderón will ask for a new role for the North American Development Bank.

All of these topics, said Selee, could prove to be sticking points or opportunities for progress and cooperation. They have the potential to go either way. Calderón is seen as much more of a dealmaker than Fox was, however, and so hopefully these leaders, who share 2,000 miles of a common border, can come together and set an agenda that will reflect their growing number of shared interests and concerns.