In advance of President Bush's upcoming visit to Mexico, Mexican President Felipe Calderon is talking tough
to the media.
Speaking to a small group of journalists last week, Calderon said Mexico expects "much more" from Washington.
Emboldened perhaps by Bush's diminished stature at home and abroad, Calderon energetically insisted Mexico would not tolerate "a relationship of subordination" to the United States.
Talk of "not standing subordination" is grandstanding for the domestic Mexican consumption, a concession of Mexico's overwhelming inferiority complex when it comes of the giant to its north. But Calderon has relatively good reason to think that America's spendthrift president can be persuaded to grant Mexico concessions it wants. Calderon knows that President Bush favors more Mexican immigration to the US and supports more NAFTA-style economic agreements. He also knows the Bush administration has become worried about the creeping influence of Veneuzela's dictator Hugo Chavez and the anti-Americanism he mixes with his tired old brand of socialism. After trying to ignore Chavez for several years, during which Chavez-like socialists have been elected in other Latin American nations, the White House has decided to "re-engage" the nations of the South, hoping to lure them away from Chavez.
But this will certainly fail. Chavez has tapped into the underlying racial tensions that characterize most Latin American nations, drawing his support from the darker, less educated, and much poorer indigenous peoples who comprise the lowest levels of Latin American societies. Chavez exploits this along with Latin America's traditional envy of the U.S. and resentment over America's past heavy-handed treatment of the south. There is almost nothing Bush or any other American leader can do to overcome the effect of Chavez's demoguagery among these people. Second, Chavez has Venezuela's $50 billion a year oil largesse to throw around the region (for as long as that lasts). President Bush hasn't the power or the purse to disperse such goodies, especially now that free trade agreements will meet with a Democrat-controlled Congress.
"The balance of forces in the region has shifted," Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's former foreign minister, wrote last week in the Washington Post.
Castaneda warned that the left-wing surge in the region, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has gone largely uncontested by Bush's administration.
A new brand of "21st century socialism" espoused by Chavez and fueled by Venezuela's oil wealth has "assembled an impressive array of tools to seduce the region," he wrote. With more than $50-billion a year in oil earnings in large part from sales to the United States, Chavez is now Latin America's richest benefactor.
He offers cheap oil and gas deals in Central America and the Caribbean and free health care programs and literacy campaigns in Bolivia, Ecuador and Haiti. He bought $1.5-billion in risky Argentine debt.
In contrast, U.S. foreign aid to the region - $1.7-billion this year - is falling. Much of the aid goes to Colombia for counternarcotics efforts.
U.S. officials say Bush's seven-day Latin American tour - his first since 2005 - is the start of a new effort to address poverty and social issues.
Other Latin American leaders have picked up on Washington's sudden interest and see the stage now set for a nice game of "pay us off." Castaneda's grim warning of Chavez's growing influence was calculated to pry open Washington's purse. Thus, in the eyes of Mexico and other Latin American governments, the US can only counter Venezuela's influence by shelling out "aid" (read: bribes).
The Mexicans are willing to play the same game with immigration.
Calderon had equally strong words for Bush regarding immigration, saying it could not be reduced by border fences and policies of "exclusion."
"Immigration can only be reduced with opportunities of progress and prosperity in Mexico," he said.
And how does Calderon expect "opportunities of progress and prosperity" to suddenly flower in Mexico? Why through massive amounts of US aid, of course. Other Mexican pundits have a laundry list for American money to improve Mexico.
"This is not rocket science," said Luis de la Calle, a former Mexican trade official and leading business consultant.
For example, the United States should invest heavily in roads and infrastructure along the border to reduce political tensions over the immigration fence.
The United States should also consider greater technical assistance for the agricultural development of the Mexican countryside. High corn prices in the United States because of the booming corn-ethanol industry provide an opportunity for Mexican farmers to compete with U.S. imports, de la Calle noted.
The United States could also make a huge impact simply by creating more scholarships for Mexican students at American universities, he said, pointing out that there are currently eight times more Chinese students studying in the United States than Mexicans.
Otherwise, de la Calle predicted the United States would lose the ideological debate with Chavez.
"If the U.S. model cannot be a catalyst for market economics and democracy in its own region," he said, "then you are in deep trouble."
The silent, but understood, admission here is that Mexicans are unable, on their own, to create economic opportunities and progress on a scale necessary to raise their country to a First World level. And if this is true of Mexicans, who are comparably well-off among Latin American nations, what does that say about the rest? For how many decades have economists been predicting the immanent rise of Brazil?
But that won't stop President Bush from squandering as much American money as he can.
Last week Bush announced a series of relatively modest efforts to help the region's poor.
"The working poor of Latin America need change, and the United States of America is committed to that change," he said.
What he proposes for the region doesn't amount to much, analysts said. But it includes some promising ideas, including a bold biofuels pact with Brazil to promote ethanol production throughout Latin America.
Bush's package includes a hemispheric conference in Washington to build stronger civil institutions, $75-million to promote study in the United States, $385-million to underwrite mortgages for low-income homeowners and funding for a health care training center.
But will that be enough to restore U.S. credibility?
The answer is a decided no. Pouring money into the slums of Caracus, Mexico City or Bogota, will do almost nothing to raise living standards there (and most of the cash will disappear into public officials' pockets anyway). Worse, the more money the US sends, the more it will be expected to send in order to maintain "good relations," and paradoxically, the more more it will be resented anyway. President Bush would do better putting away the U.S. Treasury's checkbook (which he has overdrawn anyway) and leaving Latin America to its own devices.
Chavez's 21st Century Socialism is every bit as doomed as the 20th Century version. In time, it will collapse in a frightful mess of bad debts, ruined economies, murderous dictatorships and mass poverty. The fallout for the US will likely be a new wave of illegal immigration - but that could be countered easily, and far less expensively, with adequate border enforcement. If the US demonstrated a serious committment to defending its borders, Mexico would quickly get the hint and start policing its own southern border rather than become filled with unemployed Equadorians, Bolivians, Venezuelans and NIcaraguans itself.
No one should expect President Bush to show any common sense in regard to Latin America, however. He hasn't shown any on Iraq, Afghanistan, the federal budget, the military, European relations, immigration or trade, so expecting a sudden burst of wisdom would be foolish. Nor will it likely occur to President Bush that the preening anti-American, democratically-elected socialist Chavez is a direct rebuke to his silly notion that democracy is the universal panacea. Bush just doesn't think that deeply. But he is sure God is on his side. Whatever side that is.