Jorge W. Bush visits "the neighborhood"

Talking that "free trade" talk, the president heads to Brazil to pump up ethanol. Why would anyone doubt his sincerity?

Published March 7, 2007 5:15PM (EST)

President Bush will depart on a five-country tour of Latin America on Thursday, in his new incarnation as a crusader for the impoverished "trabajadores y campesinos" south of the border. No doubt, his personal charisma and obvious sincerity will reverse years, nay decades of bad P.R. for the U.S. How can you lose when, as he told a press conference for foreign journalists on Tuesday: "The best way to alleviate poverty is for there to be prosperity"?

There's plenty to make fun of in the Congressional Quarterly transcript of that press conference. Bush's comparison of himself to Brazil's President Lula: "we share the same concerns -- particularly for the poor." His stressing that "the President has got to be constantly reminding people that poverty in our neighborhood is our problem." His declaration that, in the cause of free trade, "the President has been here working hard, been making phone calls."

But that's too easy. Let's focus on that last statement, if only because the president, or "Jorge W." as he referred to himself (and just what will the English Firsters think of that), has been consistent in promoting his pro-"free trade" agenda.

The first stop on the president's tour is Brazil, where, Bush promised, he and Lula will discuss how to get the Doha trade round back off the funeral pyre. "A successful round of Doha is by far the most effective poverty-alleviating program in the world."

A primary reason why Doha negotiators have made negligible progress for years is that countries like Brazil, for the first time in history, have the economic clout to hold off making any more concessions to the developed world until their own demands are met. Specifically, Brazil wants the U.S. and the E.U. to stop subsidizing domestic agriculture.

Funny thing, in Bush's new incarnation as the Biofuels President, much ink is being spilled on his plans to promote cooperation on ethanol development with Brazil. The countries are going to collaborate in the creation of an "international biofuels forum" that will set standards that make it easier to buy and sell ethanol internationally.

Of course, Brazil is unable to sell its ethanol to the United States, because of hefty tariffs meant to protect U.S. corn and sugar farmers. But if there was one single thing that Bush could do that would put some teeth into his free trade avowals, it would be to take a strong stand declaring that such tariffs should be abolished.

So what did National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley say on Tuesday when, after giving a briefing on the president's upcoming trip, a reporter asked, "Will there be discussion [with Lula] of reducing the tariff on importing sugar cane ethanol?"

"No," replied Hadley. "The tariff is not under negotiation and we have no intention to propose altering the tariff. That's obviously a congressional matter."

And there you have it. More free trade is the answer to all of Latin America's problems, says Bush. But actual free trade: "not under negotiation."

For more on the unlikely chances that Bush's trip will undo years of damage to the U.S. reputation in Latin America, you can enjoy reading the roundup by the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin. Thanks to Mark Thoma at Economist's View for the tip.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Brazil Globalization How The World Works Latin America