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 week-long swing through Latin America. What Mr. Chavez and his Latin-leftist allies apparently don’t realize is that rioting radicals clashing with security forces are nothing compared to what Mr. 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 piñata for more than a month. Condi’s most recent effort to launch an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference has crashed, and only 32 percent approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing, according to the latest Gallup numbers. Masters of the media are crowing that I. Lewis “Scooter” 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 lives…and 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.

From 1981-1989, President Ronald Reagan waged an unrelenting, eight-year-long campaign of democratic transition in our Southern hemisphere. Despite hostility in Congress and the press, he engaged every department and agency of our government in the effort — and his determination paid off. Democratic elections swept aside despots of the right and left from Central America to Tierra del Fuego, and by 1991 Cuba was the only dictatorship remaining on our side of the world. The flood of humanity seeking political freedom and economic opportunity across our southern borders slowed to a trickle. And then, so did American attention.

By 1994 — the year that Hugo Chavez got out of jail for his role in a failed coup attempt — U.S. focus on Latin America was practically non-existent. Diminished international aid, decreased U.S. military presence, reduced attention on building democratic institutions and cuts in economic re-vitalization projects had become commonplace throughout the region. When Mr. Chavez won election in 1998 — with fewer than 36 percent of the electorate bothering to cast a ballot — there were no alarms sounded in Washington’s corridors of power — nor have there been many since.

Regrettably, Clinton-era policies toward the region have been altered little in the last six years — despite growing anti-American sentiment, increasing economic disruption and clear evidence that China, Russia and Iran have been moving to fill the void left by U.S. inattention. “The rise of leaders like Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Evo Morales in La Paz and the return of Daniel Ortega to Managua are the consequence of a belief in Washington that you can wash your hands of us once we hold an election. That’s either arrogance, ignorance or both,” an embittered Nicaraguan told me last week.

He has a point. Messrs. Chavez and Morales were both elected — and both now rule by decree. Mr. Ortega’s return to power was the consequence of our State Department’s fatally flawed attempt to create a new political party in Nicaragua — a trick that the U.S. government has never been able to pull off in any country.

Whether Mr. Bush can reverse the anti-democracy, anti-free enterprise trend in Latin America remains to be seen, but it’s worth the effort. Even his opponents in Congress should hope that he succeeds in convincing the leaders he visits that we want individual liberty and economic opportunity to succeed in their countries. If it doesn’t, we won’t be able to build a fence high enough — or long enough — to keep out those who will walk here seeking what they cannot find at home.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of “War Stories” on the FOX News Channel and the founder of Freedom Alliance, a foundation that provides scholarships to the children of military personnel killed in action.

Lt Col Oliver L. North (ret.) serves as host of the Fox News Channel documentary series "War Stories with Oliver North." From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council staff. North is the founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization providing college scholarships to the children of military personnel killed in the line of duty and author of the new nationwide bestseller, "Counterfeit Lies," a novel about how Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Click here for more information on Oliver North