Bush Tour: Hot Air and Gas

Oliver here from Quito, Ecuador:

George Bush finished his whirlwind tour of Latin America last week. If you missed it, don’t worry. So did most people.

The US president doesn’t head into America’s backyard very often. In fact, on GW’s watch, Latin America has slipped so far off the radar screen it’s surprising that Air Force 1 didn’t get lost heading south.

Sticking to friendly countries surely helped with the navigation. In Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia, the US president found – for the most part – a welcome reception. His stop-over in Uruguay, off the map for decades in economic terms, also sent a strong signal in favour of the new pro-US (Socialist?) government in Montevideo.

Beyond the usual rhetoric about enhancing bilateral trade and immigration (and, in the case of Colombia, drugs), most analysts agree that the President’s visit lacked any real vision for the region.

Here in Ecuador, the papers concentrated on the antics of the firebrand Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The outspoken Venezuelan president held a rally in Argentina to coincide with Bush’s visit to next-door Uruguay. Although far from representative of Latin American opinion, Mr. Chávez is fast becoming the default voice of regional opinion. This is a worrying trend for fans of orthodox capitalism.

One alternative message that did get picked up here in Ecuador was Bush’s support for alternative energy. Or, more particularly, ethanol-based fuels. This is big business in Brazil, where Bush signed a new accord with President Luiz da Silva. As yet, however, the ethanol revolution has yet to really take off elsewhere in the continent.

So it was with great fanfare that Ecuador yesterday announced a pilot $US5 million project to make ethanol-based diesel available to the country’s road users. The pilot will kick off in Guayaquil, the financial capital of Ecuador. A committee has been set up (always a bit worrying) to oversee the conversion of 80 gas stations within the next four months.

The project is being financed by Petroecuador, the state-owned energy company. Half the investment will go towards changing refinery capabilities to produce the new environmentally-friendly fuel. The plan is to extract ethanol from the country’s production of sugar cane.

The government is predicting that the shift will help save $US4 million a year in imported high-octane petrol.

The new Correa government must be one of the few countries in the world that boasts an environmentalist as Minister of Energy and Mining. Alberto Acosta: a name to watch perhaps?


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