ARLINGTON, Va. — The White House rolled out the red carpet and its biggest names Monday to tell the world that it cares about Latin America and that it's doing more for the region than most people think.
President Bush and no fewer than five Cabinet secretaries touted U.S. initiatives before a group of 150 Latin American community groups and 70 U.S.-based organizations, many flown in at U.S. taxpayers' expense.
At a luncheon speech, first lady Laura Bush announced that the United States would work with Mexico, Costa Rica and Brazil to combat breast cancer in the Americas.
But more than big announcements, the White House Conference on the Americas was an exercise in public relations and regional networking.
"It's important for us — for me to explain to our fellow citizens some of the work we're doing in the neighborhood," Bush told his audience.
This was the first time in recent memory that a president had hosted a regional conference of this kind, though the White House has had events on themes such as malaria and literacy with activists and nongovernmental organizations.
The administration often complains that many of its programs go unnoticed in Latin America while relatively modest Cuban medical programs or Venezuelan soft loans for oil purchases get big headlines in local media. Officials often note that Washington provides more than $1.5 billion a year in aid to the region.
Ignorance about U.S. intentions, plus a simmering anti-American sentiment, makes it harder to drum up support for U.S. initiatives such as hemispheric free trade, many officials think.
The message Monday was that this was about more than money. Mega-corporations such as Coca-Cola and Microsoft have programs to help the region, and Bush touted the ongoing swing through Latin America by the U.S. Navy medical ship Comfort to carry out thousands of medical procedures.
The president moderated the opening panel, with six activists taking the stage.
In an exchange with Vivian Alegria, of the Coca-Cola Foundation in Mexico, Bush said he wanted U.S. companies to do more social work in Latin America. "It will not only help your business, it will help your country," he said.
The president plugged several of his regional initiatives, such as biofuels cooperation initiative and a multibillion-dollar program to combat HIV/AIDS.
"I'm not bragging," Bush said, "I'm just telling the American taxpayer that through your hard work and your tax dollars, we're helping programs . . . that are saving lives."
After he mingled with the crowd, shaking hands and posing for photos, many in the audience, whose views were framed by the Iraq war, seemed intrigued by his more relaxed ways.
"I could observe a more human side of Bush," said Alma Rosa Gonzalez, who heads CCMPAZ, a Mexican organization pushing for women's rights. "I probably should have embraced him instead of just shaken his hand."
Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said the idea of the conference came up last year, after she reported to the president from a Latin America trip in March 2006 that many in the region were only vaguely, if at all, aware of U.S. actions there.
"Everywhere we were asked, why is America ignoring us?" she said.
Hughes denied that all this was a reaction to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's strident anti-U.S. discourse.
"I haven't heard his name mentioned," she said, laughing.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007