Bush 29, Chavez 5

From | Investors.com

Posted 11/7/2005 | Latin America: If you heeded the hype from gloomy hand wringers or news photos of shop-trashing anti-American thugs, you'd think President Bush left the Argentina summit in failure. It's nothing but rubbish.

Seldom has news been so distorted against facts. Most of the U.S. media claim that because the 34 states were obstructed from full agreement on a declaration to kick-start free trade by a few holdouts, it's some sort of victory for the chief obstructor, U.S. antagonist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Just by the numbers, it's a false impression. Only five states at the Organization of American States summit in Mar del Plata withheld signing a statement to restart talks for a Free Trade of the Americas pact, and four of those Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay did so temporarily on valid concerns about farm subsidies.

The U.S. sympathizes with them, but is hamstrung by its larger trade relations with heavily subsidized Europe. That's why the U.S. is going to bat for those four at the World Trade Organization's 148-nation Doha Round of trade talks in Hong Kong this December.

That leaves just Venezuela obstructing free trade, and on ideological grounds. The real story is that 29 very different states making up 90% of the hemisphere's GDP endorsed free trade.

Even more encouraging, the summit's most articulate advocates for free trade spontaneously came from Latin American leaders whose nations have already experienced free trade. Among them, Mexico's President Vicente Fox emerged as a star, bluntly warning anti-trade factions they are "out of touch with reality."

Fox should know. Mexico's GDP has nearly doubled and its exports to the U.S. have tripled since the 1994 passage of NAFTA, expanding Mexico's economy to just a hair's breadth below that of Brazil, a country with almost twice Mexico's population.

Central American states south of Mexico aren't stupid, either, and NAFTA's success encouraged them to seek their own free trade pact with the U.S. CAFTA. They know how it draws permanent investment and increases business activity across the board, even in industries like coffee not subject to tariffs.

"We did not come here to attend the burial of the FTAA," El Salvador's President Tony Saca defiantly told Chavez at the summit. "Our position is of a total and absolute support of the FTAA. The spirit of integration will prevail."

Had the cameras been on these leaders instead of the Argentine rent-a-mob, maybe a different perception of what happened would emerge. It's no exaggeration to say that the news was purposely slanted to show these thugs instead of the leaders of the 29 nations who had something real to say about free trade.

If anything, it's Chavez who is isolated. No one has taken him up on his counterfree trade proposals, which are not based on market mechanisms but pork-barrel spending.

In the end Bush won because free trade is moving along anyway, summit or no summit. Panama is close to signing its own trade pact with the U.S. The Andean states Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are in the last stages of a swift, 18-month effort to hammer out a pact. Besides these smaller, separate deals, the World Trade Organization talks will overtake anything that went on at this summit.

Fox of Mexico called it right when he said that free trade would just move on with the willing who want it.