GUATEMALA CITY—President Bush, in the poorest of the five Latin American nations he's visiting, on Monday extolled the benefits of free trade and singled out a U.S.-backed farm cooperative that sells lettuce and carrots to Wal-Mart.
But he didn't offer what many average Guatemalans said they wanted to hear—a pledge that the Bush administration would find a way to welcome to the United States Guatemalan workers whose U.S. earnings are a major source of income here.
"A lot of our children are being thrown out of the United States and people here depend on them for survival," said Josefina Herrera, 76, who has family in Los Angeles.
"Many people here can't work because there are no jobs. Bush should give those in the United States a chance to stay and work so they can have a better life."
"Too many Guatemalan children (in the United States) are being left without parents because they are deported," said Anthony Tomas, 23, who has family in Homestead, Fla. "It's unjust. They don't go to there to steal or kill. They simply want to work. They should have that opportunity."
Bush's one-day visit to Guatemala—he flew on to Mexico for the last stop of a tour that already has taken him to Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia—underscored the widely varying views on how best to help this Central American country overcome a legacy of poverty and conflict.
The list of needs for Guatemala is long: help with security to combat gang violence, organized crime and drug trafficking; support for education and health; financial assistance for agricultural programs and infrastructures needs.
But Bush came with a different agenda—showing that the free trade agreement does work and countering the widespread perception that Washington has neglected Latin America since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"You represent people who dream, people who work hard, and people who make wonderful products," Bush told indigenous farmers at the Labradores Mayas cooperative. "Free trade is important for a lot of people. ... It creates jobs in America just like it creates jobs here."
The cooperative, comprised of 66 families, sends 30,000 heads of lettuce, 2,000 pounds of carrots and other crops a week to Wal-Mart's Central American stores, giving it an average income of about $100,000 a month. Seven out of 10 residents in the cooperative's area live on less than $2 a day, much like most of the rest of the nation.
Unlike at his previous stops, hundreds of friendly bystanders waved and held up small American flags as his 30-car caravan traveled along narrow roads that wound through several villages. Anti-Bush protests were relatively small and largely peaceful, including graffiti that called Bush an "assassin."
Several posters held up by protesters urged Bush to leave and praised Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Bush's regional nemesis, who's been undertaking a tour of his own aimed at undercutting Bush's swing. After spending Sunday in Nicaragua, Chavez was in Jamaica and Haiti Monday, touting preferential oil contracts and generous aid packages.
Many of the protesters complained that the Central America-Dominican Republic-United States Free Trade Agreement has done little to raise Guatemala out of its poverty.
"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer," said Marilu Ortega, 31, who sells baked goods for a living. "Small businesses can't compete and end up having to close their doors."
"There are no jobs here, no money, nothing," said Norman Garcia, 27, who is unemployed. "They talk about all kinds of treaties but nothing ever changes."
Bush reached out to the indigenous population by visiting the archaeological site Iximche, about 30 miles west of the capital in the province of Chimaltenango, populated mostly by Kaqchiquel Mayas who endured tremendous hardships during Guatemala's brutal 1960-1996 civil war that left some 250,000 dead.
Not everyone was pleased with the visit, however. Mayan leaders announced that priests would purify the sacred archaeological site to eliminate "bad spirits" after Bush's departure.
Bush was expected to talk about immigration reforms with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger and to press for Guatemala to apply international regulations on adoptions. Most babies adopted here—more than 4,700 in the past year—go to families in the United States and if the international guidelines aren't applied, that flow could end.
Bush and Berger also were to discuss widespread corruption that has reached the top levels of this country's security services and contributed to one of the highest homicide rates in the hemisphere.
The visit comes within weeks of a gruesome murder here of three Salvadoran legislators and the four police officers suspected of killing them. The FBI is offering assistance in a case that has unveiled the deep roots of a broken security system.
Among the suspects in the legislators' murders was the head of the Guatemalan National Police's organized crime investigations unit. He and three other police officers were killed in their jail cells shortly after being arrested. A fifth officer has turned himself in and a sixth is still being sought.
Bush said the case is worrisome to the United States and would lend technical support. Violence and drug-trafficking also "is a serious problem," Bush said, adding that combating transnational crime will require cooperation. "The sharing of information is very important."
Bush's trip began Thursday in Brazil and continued over the weekend in Uruguay and Colombia. He'll meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Merida on Tuesday before returning to Washington on Wednesday.
(San Martin reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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