George Bush flies into Mexico today for a summit showdown with Latin American leaders, many of whom are deeply disenchanted with their powerful neighbor's muscular approach to trade, aid and security.
The Summit of the Americas, called to discuss development and cooperation in a region with 220 million poor people, is in danger of being totally overshadowed by simmering tension between the US and several heavyweight regional powers.
One chief bone of contention is the new US requirement that foreign visitors be fingerprinted and photographed at US airports. No Latin American country has been included in the list of 27 states exempted from the measures.
Hundreds of Mexican workers march as they take part in an anti-American and free trade protest as leaders arrive for the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico January 11, 2004. Leaders from the Western Hemisphere are taking part in discussions on social development and equality during meetings January 12-13. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)
Brazil retaliated by ordering the same measures to be applied to American visitors, causing nine-hour queues and official protests from the US. The tit-for-tat move is hugely popular in Brazil, which is also the main thorn in US plans to negotiate a free trade deal extending from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
The Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, is scheduled to meet Mr Bush on the sidelines of the summit. But he
is not the only Latin American president under pressure to stand up to what many view as US bulldozer tactics.
Last week the Argentinian president, Nestor Kirchner, said he would win the debate with Mr Bush in their one-to-one meeting in Monterrey "by a knockout".
His comments came days after high-ranking US officials urged Argentina to speed up the fulfillment of debt refinancing conditions in the wake of the country's economic crisis, and criticized the failure of its foreign minister to meet dissidents on a recent trip to Cuba. The chief minister of the Argentinian cabinet, Alberto Fernandez, called the comments "impertinent".
In the absence of Fidel Castro, who was not invited because Cuba is not a member of the Organization of American States, the most vehement anti-American voice is likely to come from Venezuela.
The president, Hugo Chavez, last week called the US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, "a real illiterate" after she condemned his closeness to Mr Castro and reluctance to call a leadership referendum.
The leftwing former paratrooper promised to speak his mind. "The time of cowardly governments on this continent
subordinate to the dictates of Washington is coming to an end," he said.
Mr Bush should find some solace in the summit's host, Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico. Mr Fox has welcomed the US leader's proposal to provide millions of illegal immigrants, mostly Mexicans, with temporary work visas.
But even this prize is qualified by the knowledge that the move faces opposition in the US Congress, falls far short of the amnesty Mr Fox had sought, and is more of a unilateral bone-throwing exercise than a victory for diplomacy.
Mexico's former ambassador to the UN, Alfonso Aguilar Zinser, said the plan was a sign that the US treated Latin America as its "back yard" -hardly a propitious beginning for the summit Colin Powell, the American secretary of state, hoped would set "practical goals that can rapidly improve the daily lives of people in the region".
Officials were struggling even to produce an agenda for discussion by the 34 OAS leaders. The US is pushing for a pan-American free trade deal to be concluded next year, but Brazil is leading opposition to the move. The US also wants to kick out "corrupt" governments from the OAS, drawing further regional ire.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004