Yesterday, President Bush embarked upon an extended trip to Latin America, which The Economist recently described as “a region he has neglected throughout much of his presidency.”

The Economist is a great magazine, but that’s not entirely fair. The Bush administration’s biggest success in the area of international trade is the Central American Free Trade Agreement–a deal that Congress barely approved, and succeeded only because of a big push from the White House. Before that came a trade pact with Chile. And now, awaiting congressional action, are trade agreements with Panama and the Andean nations.

These are not the signs of irresponsible neglect.

Yet it would be a mistake to believe that the President had focused as much on Latin America as he initially had intended. When he first campaigned for the Oval Office, Bush made much of his ability to speak Spanish and indicated that the counties south of the Rio Grande would figure largely in his foreign-policy priorities.

We all know why they haven’t, or at least why they haven’t to the extent that we once thought they might: Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, and Iraq. A good case can be made that a heavier focus on Latin America, in the post-9/11 world, would have been downright inappropriate.

Over the course of his trip, Bush will visit Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. In Brazil, his first stop, he may announce the formation of an ethanol partnership. Our two nations produce about 70 percent of the world’s ethanol supply.

One country that’s not on the president’s itinerary is Venezuela–though its maniacal president, Hugo Chavez, surely will be on the agenda as Bush meets with his fellow dignitaries.

When Chavez isn’t busy nationalizing Venezuela’s economy, he’s busy using his petrodollars to spread anti-American mischief everywhere he can–and with a degree of success in places such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

The US would like to diminish the influence of this radical ideologue, whose flamboyant speeches suggest that he should have become a radio shock-jock rather than the leader of an important country. Keeping Chavez in check is perhaps our country’s most urgent goal for Latin America. That’s why national security will loom large on Bush’s tour.

My instincts tell me that Chavez eventually will self-destruct. Yet it would be naïve not to prepare for the worst: Terrible leaders sometimes show remarkable resilience. Just consider the case of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who, not coincidentally, is increasingly dependent upon moral and financial support from Venezuela.

The good news is that just as the United States produced anti-Communist liberals during the Cold War, Latin American has demonstrated its share of center-left politicians who resist the manipulations of Chavez.

Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has proven to be a pleasant surprise. Although he hails from his country’s labor movement–usually a bastion of protectionism–Lula is a figure with which our country can do business. The announcement of a new ethanol pact would highlight this fact.

Ultimately, our greatest leverage over Latin America will be economic. Most Latin Americans actually crave trade ties with the United States, even when their streets are full of protestors who shout “Yanqui go home!” A recent poll of people in Uruguay, for instance, found that only 12 percent approve of President Bush–but that 59 percent hope for the successful completion of a free-trade agreement whose details were ironed out in January.

Strong trade ties with the United States will give Latin Americans the tools they need to resist the exhortations of Chavez. Because of this, congressional approval of the free-trade agreements with the Andean nations of Colombia and Peru is essential. Colombia not only shares a border with Venezuela, but its government is one of our strongest allies in the region and a partner in anti-drug efforts. And last year, voters in Peru rejected a presidential candidate who appeared to be a ‘mini-Chavez’ (or, if you will, the Mini-Me to Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame).

The bottom line is that when we strengthen our economic ties to our friends south of the border, we increase both our prosperity and our security.

It would be a shame if Congress were to neglect this reality.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org