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God's Politics

President Bush is finishing a trip to Latin America – a trip that the White House has billed as advancing “the cause of social justice in Latin America.”

From the rhetoric, you’d think that the president has finally recognized that poverty and inequality are the central issues in Latin America; that it is not free trade that we should be concerned about, nor Hugo Chavez, nor coca eradication, but rather the poverty that has persisted through more than a decade of “Washington Consensus” economic policies.

These economic policies, promoted by successive U.S. administrations, and by the World Bank and other lending institutions, focused on expanding markets, reducing the role of the state in the economy, encouraging exports, and opening Latin American economies to U.S. imports. Unfortunately, these policies have had almost no impact on poverty or the unequal distribution of wealth.

Latin American social movements, and governments throughout the region, have rejected these policies and have begun to explore other approaches. Their ideas vary – from the modest reforms of Michelle Bachelet in Chile to the “21st Century Socialism” of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – but all these parties and social movements are trying to find new ways to address the problems of poverty and inequality.

Concerned that the region is turning away from the United States, the president has now jumped on the bandwagon, at least rhetorically.

But there’s less here than meets the eye. The Bush administration hopes to woo the people and governments of Latin America with sweet talk, but with little change in its policies. The president visited Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico with very little to offer to advance social justice. His budget for fiscal year 2008 cut development assistance and child survival and health funds, while maintaining high spending military and security levels for countries like Colombia. He argued that free trade agreements were the best way to reduce poverty. His new initiatives – sending a medical ship to offer some free treatment, providing scholarships for Latin American students – are nice gestures, but don’t involve substantial amounts of money.

If the United States really wants to rebuild its relationship with Latin America, it will have to take some serious steps to address Latin America’s real problems, not just offer old policies in new rhetorical boxes.

Geoff Thale is program director and senior associate for Cuba and Central America for the Washington Office on Latin America.

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