Prague, Czech Republic
President George Bush must love this part of the world. In many of the new nation-states of this region -- Latvia, Georgia, Ukraine, the other states once part of the defunct USSR -- words like "freedom" and "democracy" ring with a special resonance. Until recently, many here had experienced those political values, at least in the western liberal sense, only briefly, between World War I and World War II. Many had never experienced them at all.
So when Bush, as he recently did, comes to Central and Eastern Europe, where Russia lately reigned supreme, he is greeted by cheering throngs as he declaims on freedom and democracy. It must warm his heart to hear the uplifted voices. Finally, he must think, someone who understands.
Vladimir Putin certainly does, and it doesn't make him happy. The Russian president watches the spectacle with as much enthusiasm as Bush would if Putin showed up in Cuba or Venezuela, or somewhere else on the US's hemispheric doorstep, encouraging socialized medicine.
Which does raise a question: Why can't Bush get the sort of enthusiastic reception in Latin America that he gets here?
It's economics, stupid.
For obvious historical reasons, the new nation-states of this region have had little economic interaction with the US. The countries of Latin America have. They know from experience what happens when their domestic political aspirations -- even democratic ones -- collide with US economic interests (so often disguised as political interests).
Nicaragua offers as good example as any. Back in the old days when it was run by the Somoza family, the US was satisfied because its business interests there were satisfied. The Somozas, who ruled for 45 years, were no democrats, and freedom wasn't part of their program, but so what? If US-based United Fruit or whoever was happy, America was happy.
Then the Nicaraguans began making noise, a grassroots democracy movement got underway and the US stepped in to bolster its old friend, General Anastasio Somoza. The justification, of course, was that the democratic activists weren't capitalists. They were socialists. Never mind that half the countries in Western Europe are democratic socialist countries; that sort of thing wouldn't do in the Americas. So ensued many years of Nicaraguan civil war. Many thousands were killed, and at every turn the US flexed military muscles to protect its business interests, coincidentally keeping democracy down.
If that recounting seems simplistic for you, sorry. That's essentially how it happened and almost everyone paying attention knows it. Worse, it's a story that's been repeated over and again in Latin America.
The same sort of story in Central and Eastern Europe, and wherever there are people who suffered as part of the failed Soviet experiment, is only slightly different. It differs mainly and almost solely by the nation who plays the perceived brute. Instead of the US, it's the USSR.
And that raises a second question: Will the people here in this region of the world feel the same way about the US in 20 years that they do now?
The answer is: Probably not.
It's been 16 years since the USSR crumbled. Some of the former Soviet states are only now achieving any semblance of democracy. Economically, they remain poor, undeveloped. Their interaction with and exposure to the US has been minimal to nil.
But some other nations in the region have had more substantive experience with the US, both politically and economically. Poland comes to mind, as do Hungary and the Czech Republic. And it's not farfetched to say that the greater the interaction of average Poles, Hungarians and Czechs with American business interests, the less enthusiasm you find for the US as a nation and the greater skepticism you find regarding the political rhetoric the US expounds. In short, they know from experience that when the chips are down, when US political and economic interests conflict, economics will take precedence.
The people of Latvia, Georgia, Ukraine and so on have yet to learn this lesson. So it is that Georgians turn out in larger numbers to cheer for George Bush than Poles do. And Poles turn out in larger numbers than the Slovaks. And if Bush were to come to the Czech Republic, he wouldn't draw much of a crowd at all. We don't expect him any time soon.
Twenty years from now, if history teaches us anything, and unless American foreign policy changes significantly, the presiding US president probably won't draw such a crowd in Latvia, Georgia or Ukraine, either.
So get it while you can, Mr. President. Get it while you can.
Christopher Cook, a former newspaper journalist from Texas, is the author of the novel Robbers and the story collection Screen Door Jesus. He lives in Prague, Czech Republic.