Bush Seeks Success in South America

George W. Bush heads to Latin America this week, on his longest-ever tour of the region as president, and it's pretty clear what's on his agenda. In five countries, Bush will meet leaders with something in common: they've either already had dust-ups with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, or they otherwise seem open to deals that could help Bush counter the growing influence of his nemesis.

Bush will first fly to São Paulo to ink a deal with Brazil's president to encourage the use of biofuels as an alternative to Venezuela's oil. Next stop will be Montevideo, where he'll promote a free-trade agreement. Bush then will move on to Bogotá for meetings with Colombia's conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who has accused Chávez of harboring left-wing Colombian guerrillas. Then comes a visit with Guatemala's president, who helped block Venezuela's grab for a seat on the U.N. Security Council last October. Finally, Bush will huddle with Mexico's Felipe Calderón, who has recently emerged as Chávez's greatest antagonist in Latin America.

Washington is keen to limit Chávez's oil-fueled charm offensive in the region. But there's a deeper motivation behind Bush's tour. Given the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq, Washington is desperate for a victory. Latin America was Bush's first external priority after becoming president; only six years ago he hailed the dawn of "the Century of the Americas." Now, with nothing else going his way, Bush seems anxious to get back to basics.

It may, however, already be too late. Chávez has eagerly filled the vacuum left by Washington by buying out some of his neighbors' debts and supporting fellow leftists from Bolivia to Nicaragua. Last week he warned that Bush's new offensive was "destined to the abyss of failure."

Perhaps. But not all of Latin America swings in Chávez's direction. Mexico's Calderón harbors some antipathy toward Caracas; in January he warned against the rise of "lifetime dictatorships" in Latin America and a return to policies of "expropriation and nationalization that have caused terrible damage." (Chávez wants to repeal his term limit and has nationalized several companies.)

The Bush administration has been quick to reward Mexico for its stance. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes have all trooped through Mexico City in the past four weeks to lay the groundwork for the president's upcoming visit. "People in Washington are tickled pink by Calderón," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. "They see [him] as someone they can definitely have a sound, strong relationship with."

Latin American leaders, however, should be wary of Uncle Sam's embrace. Bush is extremely unpopular throughout most of the region; in an 18-country survey published last year by the Chilean firm Latinobarómetro, Bush scored one of the lowest approval ratings of any chief of state in the hemisphere. In Mexico, one opposition legislator has already accused Calderón of doing Washington's "dirty work." And Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should also tread carefully; the fiscally conservative (and U.S.-approved) policies he's adopted have triggered howls of protest from the militant wing of his own Workers' Party.

Bush could help Calderón neutralize critics by legalizing the millions of Mexicans working illegally in the United States. And Washington would score points through the region by suspending plans to build a new fence along 1,100 kilometers of the U.S.-Mexico border. But analysts doubt the U.S. president can deliver. "Bush isn't a lame duck, he's a dead duck," notes George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "It's just too late in the game." Calderón may be Washington's Great White Hope to curb Chávez's influence. But on this trip, Bush should keep some distance from his allies and stick to the ringside rather than getting into the fight.