Bush, Chavez Share Low Approval in Latin America

As President Bush visits Latin America this week to hammer out trade agreements and try to regain control in the hemisphere, he has at least one thing in common with his regional nemesis Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: Both men have equally low approval ratings in Latin America.

There seems to be a misconception, especially in U.S. popular opinion, that all the anti-Bush rhetoric and rallies in the region means support for Venezuela's oil-rich leader. While Bush is far from loved in Latin America, Chavez is no better off in his own backyard.

Last fall's Latinobarometro, a survey published in the Economist that polled 20,000 respondents in 18 countries, found Bush and Chavez both rated negatively by many of those polled. An equal 39 percent of those polled disapproved of each of the leaders. Only Fidel Castro fared worse.

Certainly anti-U.S. sentiments in Latin America are nothing new. Today, the internationally unpopular war in Iraq plays a part, as does this administration's inattention to the region since Sept. 11.

Bush, the presidential candidate in 2000, spoke definitely about the need for a strong U.S. policy in Latin America. His actions not following his promises, his first foreign trip as president was to Mexico. But under his administration, the United States has been disengaged in its own hemisphere, forcing the region to carry on without the usual leader.

Chavez stepped in, but his aim of unifying Latin America has not worked. In many countries, his leadership has clashed with a strongly felt nationalism even within left-wing circles.

But unlike the United States, he has tried to engage Latin America. He has been savvy to use the most powerful tools at his disposal to influence the region: anti-American sentiment and his mighty petro-dollars.

Chavez is also charismatic and tapped into the feelings of millions of Latin American workers. Even if many of those same workers see him as disruptive, or the regional clown, they do find a grain of truth in his rants about U.S. trade deals and neo-liberalism, which have done little for their unemployment, poverty and social services. Crime and racism are other major concerns on the streets of Latin America. But Latin Americans are just as skeptical about Chavez as they are about Bush.

In his visit this week, as Bush faces a more skeptical Latin America, his message of social justice can only help relations if it becomes policy. It will further deteriorate U.S.-Latin American ties if the words are hollow.

Speaking from Washington before starting his trip, Bush said that the United States shares the same concerns as the "trabajadores" [workers] of Latin America.

It will take more than words and a U.S. presidential visit for miners in Bolivia, indigenous families in Ecuador and Peru, or farmers in Brazil to regain trust in the United States. They need engagement.

But it may be too late for Bush. Even the normally U.S.-friendly political elite in Latin America fear it is too late in his presidency to address the tough issues of trade preferences, tariffs and immigration.

There has been a shift in Latin America since U.S. disengagement. But even with all the anti-Americanism, it is not centered squarely behind Hugo Chavez. In fact, in about a dozen elections in the region over the last year, none have been a referendum on Bush or on Chávez. The elections were about the concerns of the Latin American street -- unemployment, poverty, racism and social services.

In Mexico, Peru and Colombia, for example, the right-of-center candidates best connected with voters and went on to victory. In Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, it was leftist candidates.

While today Latin American governments are more likely to look beyond the United States for other partners, for instance China, the region wants badly more U.S. engagement -- the same engagement that, paradoxically, the United States and Venezuela share as oil-trading partners. A tight relationship that, for all of Chavez's rants and raves, benefits both the interests of the Bush administration in the United States and the Chavistas in Venezuela.