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Going South

As Hugo Chávez took the stage in Buenos Aires last Friday evening, speaking at a rally to protest President Bush's arrival in neighboring Uruguay, Venezuela's blustering president was all smiles. "Hi, what's up?" he asked the crowd at the rickety Ferro Carril Oeste soccer stadium in central Buenos Aires. He had reason to be cheerful. Just a few months ago, his relationship with Néstor Kirchner, Argentina's left-wing president, seemed to be on the skids. In September, Kirchner traveled to New York to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, a symbolic overture to American business interests. Two months later, Kirchner gave an Argentine judge the go-ahead to indict eight former Iranian government officials who were suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires--a move that ingratiated him to Washington but rankled Caracas, a staunch ally of Tehran. Argentina is by far Chávez's largest, richest, and most powerful ally, and losing any ground to the United States would be a major setback in his project to export the "Bolivarian revolution" across Latin America.

But here he was, on a stage fit for a rock star, on Argentine soil, addressing an estimated 30,000 spectators. He had spent the morning with Kirchner and his wife, signing financial agreements and posing for photos. Now, he was poised to steal the spotlight away from Bush, the man he calls "Mr. Danger," whose own trip through Latin America was aimed at countering Chávez 's influence.

Like the American press, Chávez likes to portray his feud with Bush as a struggle for Latin America's hearts and minds. To demonstrate his hold on the masses to the dozens of reporters buzzing around the press pen, he deployed call-and-response oratory with the crowd. Responding to Bush's recent comparison of the South American liberator Simón Bolívar with America's own founding fathers, Chávez slogged through an account of two centuries of yanqui perfidy, starting with "Jorge Washington's" slave-owning and even covering America's 1810 annexation of the short-lived independent Republic of West Florida. "So Bush is a son of Bolívar?" he concluded, triumphantly, flailing his arms robotically. "He's a son of a ..." The crowd, whose most attentive members had clearly lost interest by the Mexican-American War, snapped to attention. "Whore!" they screamed back in unison, completing the Spanish language's signature insult. "I didn't say that word," Chávez grinned.

Such momentary enthusiasm surely earned Chávez the headlines he was seeking. But the entire rally was a trumped-up media spectacle. Most of his applause lines drew a limp reaction--because much of the crowd may not have even known who he was. The $200,000 Venezuela paid Argentina to stage the event was more than enough to rent warm bodies to fill the seats. One Buenos Aires province official, Emilio Pérsico, said that he alone had brought 10,000 people to the rally, a third of the estimated total. Judging by the nature of the crowd in the first few rows, he may not have been exaggerating. "We come to all of these rallies," said Máximo Marco, a 30-year-old street junk collector who was missing his front teeth. He cited the food (a traditional Argentine sausage sandwich and a soda are typical) and ten pesos (less than $3) as his principal motivations for attendance.

The contest between Bush and Chávez really has very little to do with public opinion. If it did, they'd both be losing badly. Regionwide polls show them tied as the second-worst regarded politicians in the Americas, bested only by Fidel Castro. Instead, their battle is a cold-war-style regional chess match, in which both are trying to line up Latin America's political leaders on their side of the ledger. Last year, Chávez appeared to be losing ground when his preferred candidates lost in Mexico and Peru and his alliance with Kirchner started to fray. But, since then, Bush has focused his attention on a mere pawn, Uruguay, and driven a wavering Argentina--the queen on Chávez's board--back into the Venezuelan's arms.

South America first popped up on Bush's radar screen in November 2005, when he was obligated to visit Argentina for the Summit of the Americas, a conference of all the democratically elected heads of state in the hemisphere. The United States was pushing a hemisphere-wide free trade area, which Chávez declared he would "bury" at a rally staged a few miles from the summit. That round went to Chávez, who formed an alliance with the members of the Mercosur trade bloc (which then included Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay) to keep an endorsement of the U.S. plan out of the summit's official declaration.

Since then, Venezuela has joined Mercosur, and Bush has set about trying to divide and conquer the organization. Mercosur has always been a fractious club. Its two smallest members, Uruguay and Paraguay, perennially complain that they get a raw deal, due to the group's high external tariffs that force them to import overpriced goods from Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay, a tiny country that Great Britain created in the nineteenth century to protect its trade interests, is particularly fed up with the bloc, because Mercosur has been spectacularly unhelpful in its ongoing dispute with Argentina.

Bush was right to see all this as an opportunity to peel Uruguay away from Mercosur. Since the summit, he has aggressively courted the country's moderate left-wing president, Tabaré Vázquez, offering him a tempting bilateral free trade deal. Last May, Uruguay asked Mercosur for permission to negotiate such an agreement with the United States; it was promptly rebuffed. But the two countries have still managed to sign lesser deals, such as an investment-protection treaty. Now, Bush is rewarding Uruguay with a state visit, which also serves to promote Vázquez as a palatable alternative to Chávez. Although it is unlikely that Uruguay would actually abandon Mercosur, its threats to walk could definitely push the group toward a more open and pro-U.S. stance.

Yet America's overeager pursuit of Uruguay comes with a cost: the alienation of Argentina, which has 12 times as many people and a GDP 15 times larger. Bush's transparent effort to sabotage Mercosur has not gone over well here, and his inclusion of Montevideo, but not Buenos Aires, on his itinerary is a clear snub to Kirchner--particularly when relations between Argentina and Uruguay are at their iciest in half a century. Kirchner could hardly reject Chávez's request to visit after Bush had passed him over. The backdrop at Chávez's rally made crystal clear why Kirchner had permitted him to come: it read "Latin American Unity" in giant letters.

If Bush really wants to undermine Chávez, he will have to drive a wedge between him and Kirchner. Although Argentina would probably have been more receptive to American overtures last year, it may not be too late. Unlike Uruguay, which could be easily bribed with a painless free-trade deal--it's hard to imagine the United States being swamped by Uruguayan exports--wooing Argentina will require real concessions, ones Bush has so far been unwilling to make.

The United States has two primary carrots it can offer. First, it could support Argentina's effort to restructure the $7 billion it still owes the Paris Club group of creditor nations. Second, it could reduce government subsidies for products that compete with Argentina's agricultural exports. Any such proposal would probably have to start with baby steps, since American allies like Germany are Argentina's main creditors, and the domestic farm lobby would fiercely oppose any cutbacks in federal assistance. But even a willingness to put such issues on the table might help to turn America's relationship with Kirchner around.

The alternative is to allow Chávez's links to Argentina to grow ever closer, which would ensure that he remains a political force in the region. Virtually all of his grandiose projects for South America--a continent-long gas pipeline, a "Bank of the South" to compete with the IMF--depend on Argentine support. At the rally, Chávez called Bush a "political cadaver" and even told the crowd to watch out for a whiff of decomposing carcass wafting across the River Plate from Uruguay. He's right that Bush's presidency is already in ruins. But, if Bush stops looking to buy influence on the cheap and coughs up what Argentina is looking for, he may at least be able to take Chávez down with him.

By Dan Rosenheck