It has taken the Bush administration an exceptionally long time to summon up the political will to tour Latin America – almost seven years in fact. You can see why the White House staff were nervous. Latin America is in the middle of a popular revolt against the burdens of globalisation and legacies of foreign debt. As a result, Bush’s tour has been dogged by demonstrations and protests, beginning with a meeting with Brazilian president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva in Sao Paulo, where police used tear gas and attacked peaceful marchers with batons. In Colombia 7,000 police were drafted into the capital, Bogota, with 14,000 more ready as reinforcements. They set up road blocks to prevent protestors reaching the president. Police fired water cannons and tear gas, and the students hurled back rocks, fireworks, a few Molotov cocktails and dozens of "potato bombs". The demonstrators opposed a recent US-Colombia free trade agreement and accused Washington of meddling in the country’s internal affairs through vast sums spent on military aid. Indigenous Maya leaders have said they will perform a special cleansing ceremony at Iximche, one of their historical sites being visited by Bush today near Guatemala City. Opposition to Bush’s tour has been bolstered by an alternative effort by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who has been conducting his own tour from Argentina to Haiti and on to Russia. At the weekend, Chavez described capitalism as "the road to hell". In Nicaragua, he accused the US of interfering in the region, adding: "The North American empire is trying to snuff out the flame of liberty."
But Lula is no Chavez. Inequality in Brazil has grown sharply under the rule of the Workers’ Party, despite its pledge to tackle poverty. The Brazilian president and Bush met at a fuel distribution plant in Sao Paulo, to celebrate, Lula said, a strategic partnership between the United States and Brazil. The countries are currently the world's biggest producers of ethanol. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim signed a deal making ethanol an internationally-traded commodity and promoting its production in Central America and the Caribbean. The new "ethanol alliance" has been hailed by the Brazilian media as a first step towards an "ethanol Opec". But behind the economic deal is an ugly reality. Brazil’s biofuel programme was launched under the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s after the oil crisis of 1973 spurred the ruling junta to pour public subsidies into the sugar industry to produce ethanol. The so-called "green revolution" is linked with air and water pollution on an epic scale, together with deforestation in the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, as well as the destruction of the country’s savannah land. No amount of legislation is likely to prevent the destruction as this is usually ignored by the agribusinesses which control the industry. Lula’s "energy revolution" also comes at a heavy cost to those who work in the vast ocean-like sugar cane plantations. In one rural town at the centre of the renewable energy boom, Palmares Paulista, migrant workers from northern Brazil are described as being effectively slaves. They work 12-hour shifts in temperatures of over 30 degrees C for little over 50p per tonne of sugar cane cut. These are the grim conditions behind Lula’s hope to persuade the US to give Brazil favourable trade conditions in the current round of World Trade Organisation negotiations.
Corinna Lotz, AWTW secretary