This is where America's "can-do" optimism meets Third World reality. Condoleezza Rice's goodwill tour in Latin America this week seeks to patch up major differences with the region's powerhouse, Brazil, on the potential for "free" trade and mend fences with our other southern neighbors.
The goal of a 34-nation Free Trade Area of the Americas is worthy. It's the execution that's been faulty from the beginning of George W. Bush's administration. The president can't expect countries that have huge class schisms and poverty challenges to embrace trade that's not truly free or fair. The United States can't continue to subsidize agriculture here and expect other countries not to cry foul, as Brazil has.
Nor can the United States continue to demagogue democracy and demand transparency in Latin American institutions when virtually all the trade negotiations have been in secret. Even poor people aren't dumb enough not to see through the hypocrisy.
That is where the Bush administration's First World myopia refuses to accept the long-term consequences of its disengagement in Latin America post 9-11. As desperate people question the dominance of multinational companies, as they see their jobs leave for China -- even with NAFTA, Mexicans have lost in this race to the bottom -- millions of Latin Americans have turned to leftist leaders promising "safe" prosperity.
It is no wonder that none of Hugo Chavez's neighbors -- even Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, who has been valiantly fighting against narco-terrorism at the border -- want to be seen as Uncle Sam's enforcers, taking on Venezuela's populist president.
I have grave doubts about Chavez's commitment to democracy. But let's face the reality. Oil-rich Venezuela's stark poverty makes it easy for Chavez to stay in power. By cutting deals with China, Cuba and others to build hospitals and schools for the poor, he keeps the majority of citizens happy.
Rice comes into the region at a time when Ecuador has just kicked out President Lucio Gutierrez in a popular revolt. Ecuador is only the latest trigger point of popular unrest with leaders who don't deliver. In all, seven presidents have been ushered out of office in the region after often-violent protests.
During that same time, Chavez has reigned supreme, even overcoming a coup attempt. And as more left-leaning leaders emerge in Uruguay, Bolivia and even pro-trade Chile, there's no question that a democratic Latin America is straining to define itself.
Rice's visit is a good sign that the United States wants to improve relations, beginning with Brazil's Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva. The secretary of state will have to do more than talk up trade or wring her hands about Chavez's recent power grabs, though. Lula wants Brazil to take a much more prominent role in the United Nations. Will we help or stand in the way?
The Organization of American States poses its own challenge. Members recently rejected the U.S.-backed candidate to lead the OAS -- another sign Latin Americans want to chart their own destiny without U.S. strong-arming.
What we should be doing in Latin America is sending more help directly to the poorest people in the region -- making a pitch for trade through good works. The Cuban regime is on to something on that front.
It should give those who cherish democracy pause that most Latin Americans have told pollsters they are willing to give up on democracy if they can just make a decent living.
The Bush administration should put aside its one-size-fits-all trade rhetoric, remove its blinders and focus on the disparities that are driving Latin Americans to the far left -- and into the arms of potential dictators.