MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina—Troubles at home followed President Bush to Latin America on Friday as thousands of protesters and Venezuela's defiant left-wing leader got his trip to the Summit of the Americas off to a rocky start.
Enduring the lowest public-approval ratings of his presidency, Bush followed a path well-trod by previous presidents in trouble at home who sought relief abroad. But if he expected to get a break during his talks with 33 other leaders at a seaside resort, he was sorely disappointed.
Even before the summit convened, the president was peppered with questions from reporters about the future of White House aide Karl Rove and other controversies. He ducked them, saying he couldn't comment on anything related to the ongoing investigation into the unauthorized exposure of a CIA employee.
Outside the summit, crowds jeered Bush and cheered Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at an anti-American rally. Chavez said he came to the summit to bury Bush's hopes for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would cover the entire Western Hemisphere.
"Every one of us has brought a shovel, an undertaker's shovel, because here in Mar del Plata is the tomb of FTAA," Chavez said at an alternative "people's summit" at a soccer stadium. Protesters carried signs denouncing Bush.
Bush seemed unfazed.
"I will, of course, be polite," he said when he was asked how he'll treat Chavez during the summit.
Violence erupted soon after Chavez's speech as protesters set buildings on fire with Molotov cocktails and police fired teargas into the crowds.
The massive protests weren't lost on Bush, who's unpopular in Latin America due to regionwide opposition to the Iraq war and the view that the United States has ignored serious issues in its hemispheric backyard.
After a meeting with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, Bush said it wasn't easy hosting a big event such as the Summit of the Americas and "it's not particularly easy to host, perhaps, me."
His inability to find public approval even far from home is somewhat unusual for U.S. presidents who are mired in domestic trouble. Even at the height of the Watergate controversy, for example, Richard Nixon basked in adoration from foreign crowds, who never quite understood what Watergate was about. President Clinton, dogged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal at home, found solace in the adoration of huge crowds on trips to Africa and Brazil.
Bush opened his three-country swing through South and Central America amid new signs that his political problems are taking a toll on his standing at home.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll Friday found that for the first time, a majority of Americans are questioning Bush's integrity, a byproduct of the controversy over the disclosure of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity, which is contributing to the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.
In the poll, 39 percent of respondents approved of the job he's doing as president while 60 percent disapproved. A separate CBS poll this week found only 35 percent approval.
The Post/ABC survey indicated that 58 percent of Americans have doubts about Bush's honesty, marking the first time in his presidency that more than half the country questioned his integrity.
Bush shrugged off the numbers, saying that if he works hard enough things will take care of themselves.
"The way you earn credibility with the American people is to declare an agenda that everybody can understand, an agenda that relates to their lives, and get the job done," he said. "And the agenda I'm working on now is one that is important to the American people."
He deflected questions about Rove, saying he wouldn't talk about him while Rove is under investigation, and about calls for a shakeup of White House staff.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said aboard Air Force One en route to Argentina on Thursday that there hadn't been a discussion of staff changes "beyond the usual vacancies that occurred in the vice president's office."
Bush's trouble at home topped his first full day of a five-day tour of Argentina, Brazil and Panama. But his problems in Latin America were also on display, as tens of thousands of demonstrators chanting "Bush Get Out" marched through the streets of this coastal resort town and headed to an outdoor arena where Chavez attacked Bush and U.S. economic and trade policies.
Bush tried to put a fresh face on U.S.-Latin American relations and his relationship with Argentina. He noted that the United States and Argentina share belief in democracy and a free press and love Manu Ginobili, the Argentine star of the National Basketball Association's champion San Antonio Spurs.
Kirchner offered a more succinct take on his session with Bush.
"I'm leaving this meeting feeling very satisfied because it wasn't a meeting looking for nice words, but to speak the truth, and each of us did just that," he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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