By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — As President George W. Bush headed to Latin America in March, his visit focused attention on what has been happening in the region while U.S. eyes have been diverted by domestic politics and the Iraq War.
The White House described the trip as about promoting “freedom, prosperity and social justice,” though many observers said the main motive was to counter the growing influence and power of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other left-leaning Latin American politicians.
Bush and members of his administration tended to step around the issue when it came up in interviews ahead of his visit to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, but the trip was widely dubbed an “anti-Chavez” tour.
Chavez is a frequent traveler throughout Latin America. He has bestowed largesse from Venezuela’s oil-rich treasury on neighboring countries, lent support to left-leaning populist politicians and frequently takes swipes at Bush and his policies. For instance, in a speech at the United Nations last year, Chavez called Bush “the devil.”
Chavez, a close friend of Cuban President Fidel Castro, staged his own tour of locales near where Bush would be and encouraged protests of the U.S. president’s visit.
Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a foreign policy think tank, told a group of Catholic social justice advocates in February that what is happening in Latin America today is less about left-right politics than was the often violent move toward more socially conscious governments in Latin America 20 or 30 years ago.
Thomas Quigley, policy adviser on Latin America to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Catholic News Service that although the political rhetoric may sometimes resemble the movements in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, it does not come from a single ideology today, as it did when anti-establishment leaders had socialist and communist ties.
Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said at a March 6 briefing that the preoccupation with Chavez by the Bush administration is but one manifestation of the reduced pull of the United States in Latin America. Even with the influence Chavez has tried to assert, the fact is “there are other actors there. Chavez has bought up a lot of debt, but that doesn’t mean he’s a hero.”
In his remarks in February, Shifter said the attitude toward the United States in Latin America has become wary skepticism. Globalization has brought some good to Latin America, but it also has resulted in “social dislocation,” unemployment, frustration and dissatisfaction for people who have not benefited financially. Those frustrations, plus the increasing influence in the region of other countries, including China, have created a climate where political leaders “want elbow room, distance from the United States,” Shifter said.
Arnson said Bush’s trip marks “a radical shift in the way the United States talks about Latin America. Until now (in this administration) there have been two themes — free trade and open markets and counternarcotics and counterterrorism.”
Given the recent electoral success in Latin America of politicians with very different priorities, Arnson said it has become obvious that the benefits of continuing to push toward open markets “are doubted by the population.”
Recent elections have given Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia presidents who are politically more like Chavez than like Bush, with rhetoric that emphasizes aiding the poor and nationalizing some industries, as opposed to the free-trade, market-based approaches encouraged by the United States.
In another close election with a different result, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon last July defeated Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who campaigned on increasing the minimum wage and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Meanwhile, a leading presidential candidate in Paraguay, a resigned Catholic bishop, is considered an ally of Chavez. His party’s platform stresses aiding the poor, fighting corruption and capping government salaries.
And in Guatemala, the presidential candidacy of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberto Menchu has brought offers to help unite the indigenous population behind her from Bolivian President Evo Morales, that country’s first indigenous president and a close ally of Chavez.
As Walter T. Molano, a columnist for the Latin American Business Chronicle, put it, “Given the growing prominence of rogue leaders and anti-American rhetoric, it was time for the U.S. cavalry to ride to the rescue.”
Despite the participation of retired Bishop Fernando Lugo Mendez in Paraguay’s election, the role of the Catholic Church in relating to these new leaders is not as clearly defined as it was in those days when priests, nuns and catechists who advocated for human rights often became victims of violent repression.
In January the Vatican told the retired bishop that it was rejecting his request for laicization after 30 years as a bishop and priest and suspended him from exercising his priestly ministry because he is running for president.
Quigley noted that recently elected President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua apologized to the church and won kind words from Managua’s Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo, who was one of his harshest critics when Ortega led the communist-leaning Sandinistas.
Chavez and Morales also have clashed with the church over some of their ideas, such as Morales’ ill-fated plan to prohibit teaching religion in public schools, but both have made recent overtures to get along better with the Catholic hierarchy.
Still, when the bishops of Latin America gather in Brazil May 13-31 for their fifth general conference, the topics on the agenda mirror many of the issues being raised by populist candidates: economic justice, corruption, migration, education and civic participation.