By Howard LaFranchi writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Despite a five-day trip to South and Central America, President Bush was unable to work the same wonders on US-Latin American relations that he did earlier this year on ties to Europe.
Indeed, this trip was unlike Mr. Bush's February journey across the Atlantic, which was widely seen as successful in repairing relations damaged by the US decision to invade Iraq. Instead, the three-country trip that ends Monday has revealed more than anything how distant and dissonant relations with much of the hemisphere - in particular South America - have become.
"The sense one has after these few days that Bush spent in the region is that Latin America is very, very far from Washington," says Felix Pena, a specialist in international economic relations in Buenos Aires. "It's not good for anyone involved, but the events don't seem to allow any other conclusion."
At last weekend's Summit of the Americas in this seaside city, Bush did not get the green light he sought for a relaunching of hemispheric trade negotiations. What came out of the unusually obdurate talks - which nearly ended in failure - was more of a yellow light.
A majority of countries signed on to language in a final summit document that calls for reviving long-stalled negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas sometime next year. But five countries - including summit host Argentina and regional giant Brazil - insisted that conditions are not ripe to proceed toward the FTAA.
As part of his trip, Bush had also sought to address US concerns about signs of instability in the region, including in Bolivia. In presidential elections there next month, voters could elect an Indian rights activist who advocates legalization of coca growing and nationalization of the natural-gas industry.
But with the free-trade topic dominating conversations, it was unclear how much attention Bush was able to draw to Bolivia in Argentina or Brazil, where Bush met with President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva after the summit. Both countries have influential ties to Bolivia.
While at the Summit of the Americas, Bush was also unable to deny Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a significant piece of the stage. The self-described enemy of "American imperialism" used the platform to amplify his socialist agenda and even warn of what he said are "undeniable" US military plans to invade his country.
At the summit's end, which was hours beyond schedule because of the difficulty in reaching a final communique, Mr. Chavez crowed that Bush was "the great loser" of the event. The summit was no triumph for Chavez, however, since he had vowed the meeting would be the "tomb" of the free-trade area. Even Argentine officials, while opposing a return to talks on the FTAA under current conditions, acknowledged the project is "not dead" since more than two dozen of the hemisphere's countries favor moving toward completion of the trade agreement.
But Chavez did manage to speak for two hours before an estimated 25,000 gathered at a "counter summit" Friday that focused on fighting poverty and US-style capitalism. …