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2007-03-09

Council on Hemispheric Affairs’ Larry Birns on Bush’s Trip to Latin America: "A Matter of Low Expectations and Utter Despair"

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To talk more about President Bush’s visit to Latin America, Council on Hemispheric Affairs director Larry Birns joins us in Washington. COHA calls the trip "a matter of low expectations and utter despair." [includes rush transcript]

To talk more about President Bush’s visit to Latin America, Larry Birns joins us in Washington. He is the Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington DC.

  • Larry Birns. Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington DC.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’ll be joined by Larry Birns in Washington. But we turn first to President George Bush.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, not far from the White House, there’s a statue of the great liberator Simon Bolivar. He’s often compared to George Washington — Jorge W. Like Washington, he was a general who fought for the right of his people to govern themselves. Like Washington, he succeeded in defeating a much stronger colonial power. And like Washington, he belongs to all of us who love liberty. One Latin American diplomat had put it this way: "Neither Washington nor Bolivar was destined to have children of their own, so that we Americans might call ourselves their children."

We are the sons and daughters of this struggle, and it is our mission to complete the revolution they began on our two continents. The millions across our hemisphere who every day suffer the degradations of poverty and hunger have a right to be impatient. And I’m going to make them this pledge: The goal of this great country, the goal of a country full of generous people, is an Americas where the dignity of every person is respected, where all find room at the table, and where opportunity reaches into every village and every home. By extending the blessings of liberty to the least among us, we will fulfill the destiny of this new world and set a shining example for others. Que Dios les bendiga.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush addressing the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. on Monday, as we turn now to Washington, D.C. Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, we welcome you to Democracy Now!

LARRY BIRNS: Hi, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of President Bush’s trip now to these five Latin American countries?

LARRY BIRNS: Well, I don’t — almost don’t even know why he made the trip, because everyone acknowledges, both on the right and the left, that the region has been neglected, woefully neglected. Everyone feels that he’s trying to play catch-up ball. But he doesn’t have anything in the inventory. The amount of money that he’s giving, a couple of hundred million dollars, is — you know, Hugo Chavez has given Argentina $4 billion so far. So just on the level of financial assistance, it’s a very meager sum.

And remember that half of the money right now that goes to Latin America goes to Colombia. And most of that money goes to the purchase of weaponry, in which to engage in civic conflict, as well as anti-drug trafficking, and in that civic conflict, many people have died.

The administration is woefully unpopular in Latin America. Roughly 85% of Latin Americans don’t like President Bush. The language he is using, the patronizing remarks he makes, the celebrational — I mean, we’ve been down that road, and I just don’t see who his audience is.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Larry Birns, the issue of free trade has always been at the center of President Bush’s policies toward Latin America, and to some degree, under President Clinton, it was, as well. And there is a deadline of June 30th for the end of fast track legislation. Is the President — some people are speculating the President is trying to rush in to get a few more agreements before that legislation expires, and the Democrats would then have an opportunity to redefine fast track legislation, if there would be any, in terms of free trade.

LARRY BIRNS: You know, I’m very glad that you brought up the fact that under the Clinton administration the desiderata was more or less the same. In fact, it was President Clinton who basically said that the age of ideology is dead and that we and the Latin Americans want to talk trade. Of course, that became an open door to sort of to kick out of the closet all of the factors, such as social justice and poverty and sort of equality in terms of standards of living, and that sort of thing.

I think one of the real casualties was that during the deliberations over NAFTA under Clinton, the natural Democratic block against free trade, or which was very weary about free trade, that was bludgeoned into forming a kind of de facto alliance with the Republicans. More Democrats voted against NAFTA than voted for it. But I think there has been some erosion since then.

Free trade has to be looked at very carefully. The administration has insisted that when it comes to free trade, we’re talking about a win-win situation. But enough studies have come in by now that show that demonstrably it’s a win-lose situation. It all depends where you sit at the table. And many people and many sectors have been hurt by free trade. For example, just look at Mexico. There have been tens of thousands of bankruptcy proceedings and the sale-off of land because of the fact that people cannot compete against the United States. That is, corn grown in the United States and sold in Mexico, which really invented corn, is cheaper than Mexican domestic corn. And that is why, of course, you have a lot of people selling off their land and making the march up to the United States, because they cannot earn a living.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Birns, can you talk about the ethanol agreement that President Bush is going to sign in Brazil today?

LARRY BIRNS: Well, that’s kind of a Hail Mary pass. We haven’t gotten the details on that. I mean, right now it’s a research agreement, and it sort of involves promotion of, I guess, the growth of sugar, sugar cane, perhaps elsewhere in the region, including the Caribbean. I think that for the Caribbean it might be a very interesting thing to get their high-cost sugar industry to now produce ethanol.

But since the United States ethanol comes from corn, which is much more expensive than sugar ethanol, I just don’t see the complementarity of this thing. I don’t know whether this is kind of a rhetorical photo op or whether there’s real substance to it. A lot of Brazilian specialists are very sort of weary of — they wanted to come up with some happy, upbeat kind of thing. And since they can’t talk about free trade, because of the fact that the United States has not put on the table yet the negotiability of agricultural subsidies in the United States, since most of Brazil’s exports are agricultural, Brazil has to have that concession, as do other Latin American countries. They’ve got to have that agricultural subsidies eliminated so they can compete.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Larry Birns, you mentioned earlier the $4 billion aid package from Venezuela to Argentina. In previous decades, the political clashes of Latin America were always stuck, in terms of being able to chart an independent course, by the problems of international finance, the loans and development and major aid by international banks and the United States. What’s been the impact of the Venezuelan situation and the ability of the region to now have some local financing and loans and development opportunities?

LARRY BIRNS: Well, I think it’s been large, and I think it has the potential of being huge. The amount of foreign investments going into Latin America have been relatively modest. And due to the high-tech nature of some of these investments, the jobs created are — it’s not a labor-intensive situation. It’s a capital-intensive situation. And so, we keep on giving promises to Latin America, but the promises don’t bear fruit.

In terms, for example, of Mexico, President Fox used to say, "We’re going to create a million new jobs in Mexico." Unfortunately, what we didn’t know at the time was, what he had in mind was a million new jobs in the United States for Mexicans that he would seek to get up there.

But there has been no — that is, the United States is so wedded to its doctrinal obsession with market accessibility and the whole roster of neoliberalism that it looks upon Hugo Chavez as a danger, not so much because he calls the President a devil and a donkey. No, no, no. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Chavez is an updated version of Salvador Allende, that is fusing a socialist economy with a constitutional, political, democratic form.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Birns, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you very much for being with us, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C. And we will link to your report on President Bush’s visit to Latin America: "The President’s Latin American Journey: A Matter of Low Expectations and Utter Despair."

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