Oliver North

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Oil-rich Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has pulled out all the stops to protest the man he calls "the devil." Well-organized anti-American crowds are dogging President Bush at every stop during his weeklong swing through Latin America. What Chavez and his Latin-leftist allies don't realize is that rioting radicals clashing with security forces are nothing compared to what Bush left behind. He picked a good time to get out of town.

Here in Washington the weather is cold and the politics are even colder. The administration is being beaten like a rented mule over the deplorable conditions in which wounded warriors were warehoused at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Democrat detractors and their pliant pals in the press, outraged over the "surge" in Iraq, have been pelting the president like a pinata. Condoleezza Rice's most recent effort to launch an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference has crashed, and only 32 percent approve of the job Bush is doing, according to the latest Gallup numbers. Masters of the media are crowing that I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, has been convicted and the veep has a blood clot in his leg.

Sure sounds like a good time for Bush to head south. Officially, the White House says that the purpose of the president's trip to Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Guatemala and Mexico -- his longest to the region -- is to "underscore the commitment of the United States to the Western Hemisphere and highlight our common agenda to advance freedom, prosperity, and social justice and deliver the benefits of democracy in the areas of health, education, and economic opportunity." Those are certainly good reasons for our head of state to visit our southern neighbors. The only question: Is it too little, too late?

Last month Bush proclaimed 2007 the "year of engagement" with Latin America. And last week, before departing for the region he told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, "the fact is that tens of millions of our brothers and sisters to the south have seen little improvement in their daily livesand this has led some to question the value of democracy." All true -- but there's more to it than that.

The president's critics -- like the Los Angeles Times -- claim that the administration's "fixation on Iraq and the Middle East has left Latin America, once the focus of Cold War conflicts, largely ignored, except for U.S. insistence on aggressive drug-interdiction and free-trade policies." Yet, to a large extent Latin America's economic stagnation and disaffection with democracy began more than a decade ago.

Oliver North

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.