President Bush’s trip to South America prompted many to take to the streets and protest (or riot about) the free trade agreement discussed at the summit in Buenos Aires. At least, that’s what the press claimed. While attempting to paint Bush as the catalyst for protests, reports have not made it entirely clear that the problem in question was anything other than the clash between populism and free trade.
The Washington Post made Bush central to the upheaval. According to every story they put out, the protestors at the rally were “anti-Bush”, or “anti-American.” The L.A. Times referred to Friday’s protests as “peaceful but intensely anti-Bush.”
A New York Times story was titled, “Hemisphere Summit Marred by Violent Anti-Bush Protests,” written as though a natural reaction to Bush is firebombing a storefront. Nearly all reports, including this one, note that Bush, according to polls, is “the most unpopular American president ever among Latin Americans.” The L.A. Times wrote that U.S. presidents are often disliked in Latin America, but this one in particular “whose Middle East and economic policies are extremely controversial here — is among the least popular in recent memory.” Another Times story entitled, “Far Away from Home, No Rest for a Weary President,” opened with the line, “George W. Bush sometimes seems to be in a Murphy’s Law period of his presidency, when everything that can go wrong will go wrong,” and continuing, “so after one of his most miserable weeks at the White House, things did not get a lot better on his messy four-day trip to Latin America.”
What was miserable about that week? Samuel Alito was nominated to the Supreme Court after the graceful resignation of Harriet Miers, Bush was praised for his nomination of Ben Bernanke to the Fed chairmanship, Rove wasn’t indicted, and the Dems made themselves look like fools by shutting down the Senate. That last move by the Democrats, if anything, was a sign of how well Bush was doing.
Five years ago, these “anti-Bush” protestors were called “anti-capitalists,” perhaps a more appropriate name. The New York Times reported that a few days before the tumultuous Seattle WTO conference headed by Bill Clinton in 1999, “400 young anti-capitalists held a roving protest in Manhattan yesterday afternoon” (emphasis added). In another report, no mention was made of anti-Clinton rhetoric, despite “his visit to promote the benefits of free trade and to prod delegates to smooth out disagreements and listen to the protesters’ concerns.”
The crowd in Argentina was very much the same mix of people: those who oppose free trade policies. This time, the Times scoffed at assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Thomas A. Shannon, who argued that the demonstrations “are not unusual around these kinds of larger international gatherings.” Despite his historical accuracy, the Times disregarded it as an attempt to “play down” the protests.
The protesters, however, were not protesting the summit because of the Iraq war. In April 2001 the Times‘ Anthony DePalma wrote that “legions of protesters” arrived in Canada to protest the Free Trade Pact for the Americas. In another report, he quotes a protestor as saying, “Even if some windows are going down on Saturday, that is not violence.” And nowhere in these articles is the phrase “anti-Bush” used. It was too early in the propaganda cycle for that.
It shouldn’t be surprising to see such a milieu of mixing messages. Latin America has a long tradition of socialist inclinations, let alone the host country of the recent summit, Argentina. Buenos Aires is no stranger to instability, having recently gone through a string of resignations, losing several executive officers (including presidents) from office within a year of eachother. Hugo Chavez’s populist rhetoric may have been alarming, especially the Khrushchevian promise to “bury this plan,” but given all the ruckus over free trade, particularly in Latin America, saying that he was the root of it all is giving him a little too much credit. A Venezuelan poll actually notes his own people’s refusal to endorse his desire to follow the Cuban economic model and shows that his approval ratings, at 51%, aren’t much to write home about either. Those numbers were, after all, collected under a dictatorship.
Violent protests such as the riots during Bush’s visit are far more concerned with “fair” trade than figureheads. If they were actually concerned with authority, let alone rising out of poverty, they would accept a job flame-roasting McDonalds’ burgers, not flame-roasting McDonalds restaurants. And if Bush really did fail in his mission, then why did only five countries dissent from the ultimate pact, with twenty-nine following Washington? It looks like the rallies outside the summit weren’t the only riots of note.