THE BLOG
03/09/2007 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Bush's Latin America Problem That He Is Not Shouting Loud Enough?

In Friday morning's New York Times, as the president continued his tour in Latin America, the national security advisor, Stephen J. Hadley, said this about perceptions in South America about the U.S. - "Something we have not done well enough is getting out the full scope of the president's message."

Later in the day, the President addressed accusations that his administration doesn't care about the region: "That may be what people say but it's certainly not what the facts bear out,'' Bush said. "We care about our neighborhood a lot.''

In politics, spin and self-delusion share a common border. Of course, this White House will rationalize the decline in our image and influence in the Americas, by saying that we're misunderstood, or that our policy has been under-communicated, as if "our neighbors" are hard of hearing and we simply haven't shouted loud enough.

As elsewhere in the world, President Bush has a problem in South America and throughout the region. But it is not a communications problem. It is a reality problem, one that warm words and a meager aid package cannot address. Our diplomacy doesn't reflect an understanding of the region; we lecture and confront, but we don't often listen, and the pushback the President is getting reflects the consequences of his policies.

At times, U.S. policy just appears baffled and irrelevant. We're confounded by the elections of progressive governments in the region. We have stale debates between advocates of free trade and protectionism, as the nations of Latin America devise new forms of integration outside of the U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas and build trade relations with partners as distant as China.

Second, rather than focusing on the problems that concern the people of the region - poverty and income inequality, low per capita spending on health care and education, corruption in governance, the loss of security and increased violence - our government engages in confrontation and divisive diplomacy.

Consider Cuba, against whom the U.S. has maintained an economic embargo since 1962 and where our policy today is explicitly devoted to regime change and preventing a constitutional succession. Not only has this policy failed to overthrow Cuba's government and system, but it harms our image throughout the world.

Consider Venezuela, and our acrimonious relations with their president, Hugo Chavez. Chavez constantly insults President Bush and calls the U.S. a threat to global peace and an economic predator. We call Chavez an anti-democratic despot; we condemn his relations with Iran and Cuba, and belittle his efforts to provide cut-rate heating oil to our own citizens. In our feud with Chavez, we demand that nations of the region stand with us or be penalized for supporting him, and we drive many of his moderate neighbors into his camp.

Consider the United Nations. At a time when there are countless threats to world peace, last year we forced no fewer than 47 rounds of voting in an ultimately successful effort at blocking Venezuela from securing a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council. What does this say about our priorities in the world?

Consider the immigration debate, used by the president's political party as a wedge issue in the run-up to the 2006 congressional campaign. As Congress moved to build a wall to keep immigrants out of the United States, we insulted the nations of the region and unified them in opposition to us. Guatemala's vice president Eduardo Stein said the United States treats Latin America "as though we were a sub-hemisphere of criminals."

Consider Bolivia, which elected against U.S. wishes, an indigenous political leader, Evo Morales as president, who is leading a social and political transformation of his country. Although we have moderated our rhetoric over time, we demonstrated at the outset of his administration a profound misunderstanding of this development.

As Teodoro Petkoff, editor of Tal Cual, a Venezuelan opposition newspaper, said last year in Caracas: "If the political establishment of the U.S. does not understand why someone like Morales emerges then there is no future for U.S. policy in the region."

To be sure, Latin America has problems that are of its own making; its own sorry history of dictatorial and corrupt governments, policies that deepened its own impoverishment, divisions based on class and heritage that debased the humanity of its people. The United States has also made many mistakes of its own in the region, and often assisted governments in the Americas who committed injustices against their own citizens.

But our problem is less with the past and more with the present and the future. We must take active steps now to heal this needless breach between us and those who should be our natural allies.

But after all he has done to set the region on edge neither the president nor Mr. Hadley should think this trip to Latin America is going to set everything right. If they do, they are only spinning themselves.