Just when we thought Hugo Chavez had been given free rein to take over Latin America, President Bush suddenly remembered that there are 19 countries just south of the Mexican border.
After neglecting Latin America for the past six years, and devoting U.S. foreign policy to his obsession with Iraq, Bush set out rediscover the New World last week.
There is only one problem: His five-nation tour is too little and way too late.
During the time Bush has been wearing blinders, his Venezuelan nemesis has been turning the entire continent against us. With Venezuela's oil wealth, Chavez has been buying the loyalty of many Latin American leaders who were once our friends, and funding the anti-American crusades of many others.
His success was evident as Bush faced some of the most massive and vicious protests against an American president in recent history.
Yet Chavez would not have been able to stimulate so much anti-American sentiment if Bush had heeded the pleas from many Latinos who have been crying out for attention.
Reporters traveling with the president have spent the last few days blaming the war in Iraq for Bush's unpopularity in Latin America. They have been so conditioned by the administration to think only about Iraq that even when they are in Latin America, they look for an Iraq angle.
Most Latin Americans could care less about the war in Iraq. They care about their standard of living, putting food on the table and raising their kids — just like most Americans.
Sure, there were some anti-war protesters in the countries the president visited. But that was just an excuse for hardcore leftists to mount their anti-American offensive.
What has made Bush extremely unpopular in Latin America is his administration's indifference to the needs of our hemispheric neighbors. They are disgusted by U.S. immigration policy, and particularly Bush's lack of backbone in dealing with the conservative extremists in his own party, who constantly display mean-spirited attitudes toward Latinos.
Latin Americans are troubled by a U.S. government that says one thing and does exactly the opposite, especially when promising funding to help the hemisphere's poor.
"Although the administration claims to have doubled its assistance to countries in the Western Hemisphere, the reality is that under President Bush's watch America has actually cut core development funding since 2001, going from a total of $324 million to $304 million, a 6.2-percent decrease," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said last week.
He said Bush's most recent budget proposal recommends cutting another 26 percent from those accounts, which are used for combating infectious diseases, promoting child and maternal health and supporting sustainable economic growth.
Menendez also noted that Bush's budget "actually proposed a 9-percent cut in total aid for Latin America and the Caribbean."
He said these cuts send the wrong message to Latin America.
"We must ensure that we don't allow a vacuum to form in the hemisphere — a vacuum that could be filled by the Chavezes of the world," Menendez said.
The senator noted that while the president likes to highlight U.S. support for one particular program that benefits the poor, it only applies to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. "That means, at most, only 4 percent of Latin America's poor will see an increase in aid," Menendez added. "That leaves 96 percent — or 213 million — of Latin America's poor facing serious cuts in development funding."
By creating economic growth in Latin America, the United States has a lot to gain, Menendez argued, because "people won't have to leave their homes to find jobs" and because by increasing stability in our hemisphere, "we are thwarting opportunities for terrorists and criminals who thrive on chaos and insecurity."
Yet we have a president who has been so preoccupied with building democracies where they never existed in the Middle East that he has allowed Chavez to gain strength, leaving fragile Latin American democracies to disintegrate into leftist dictatorships.
Even when Bush was in South America, Chavez was constantly hurling insults at the United States.
Yet, instead of returning the insults so that Latin America will see we are not intimidated by a two-bit dictator, Bush refused to even mention Chavez by name.
"He doesn't dare to say my name," Chavez said as he traveled on a rival tour of the South America, mocking Bush along the way. "Several journalists have asked him this week 'what do you think of what President Chavez says?' and he doesn't answer ... His heart starts racing, he gets tongue-tied."
In this country, Bush's decision to ignore Chavez may be seen as a sign of civility. But in Latin American, it is a sign of weakness.
To find out more about Miguel Perez, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.