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Bush lauds democracy, rails against divisiveness in Latin America

BRASILIA, Brazil—In a speech viewed as an attack on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, President Bush on Sunday hailed the growth of democracy in Latin America and denounced those in the region who rule by fear, divisiveness and blame.

Speaking at a hotel here in the Brazilian capital, Bush outlined two competing visions for Latin America: one that continues its shift from military dictatorships to freely elected governments and the other that follows divisive leaders who do little to improve their countries.

"One offers a vision of hope. It is founded on representative government, integration into the world community and a faith in the transformative power of freedom in individual lives," Bush told an audience of university students, the local diplomatic corps and business leaders. "The other vision seeks to roll back the democratic progress of the past two decades by playing to fear, pitting neighbor against neighbor and blaming others for their own failures to provide for their people."

Administration officials declined to say if Bush was specifically talking about Chavez, whose anti-Americanism and staunch opposition to a U.S.-led free trade zone for the region has alienated the White House.

A close ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro, Chavez has accused the Bush administration of attempting to overthrow his government in 2002 and preparing to launch an invasion against his country. He has dubbed Bush, "Mr. Danger."

Chavez led vocal opposition to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas during the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, which ended Saturday with Bush leaving before the two-day meeting ended. Leaders from 34 member nations failed to agree on whether to continue the talks about establishing a trade zone that stretches from Canada to Chile.

Chavez called the trade zone idea dead before tens of thousands of protesters at an anti-free trade/anti-Bush rally in an outdoor soccer stadium in the Argentine resort town of Mar del Plata, where the summit was held.

Bush's speech was part of a daylong charm offensive on his first trip to Brazil, an emerging economic power.

In his speech, at meetings with youth and business leaders and at a barbecue at Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's retreat located near a national park about 11 miles from the capital, Bush effusively praised his host and stressed the democratic ties that bind the United States and the world's fifth most populous nation.

"I want to send a very clear signal to the people of Brazil that the relationship between America and Brazil is an important relationship, that is a friend ... ," Bush said during a meeting with Brazilian business leaders. "It's in our interest that our neighborhood be a prosperous neighborhood. It's in our interest that we work with the largest country in the neighborhood."

The meeting of the two presidents represented a gathering of weakened leaders, Silva crippled by an influence-peddling and vote-buying scandal that has led to resignations of members of his government and political party, and Bush hobbled by sagging popularity at home and abroad and an on-going criminal investigation into who on his staff leaked the identity of an undercover CIA agent.

Still, Bush's wooing of da Silva signaled the importance of this stop on Bush's five-day, thee-country Latin America tour. The White House needs Brazil's support if it has any hopes of reviving the decade-old plan for a hemispheric free trade zone.

"He's got to be convinced, just like the people of America must be convinced, that a trade agreement in our hemisphere is good for jobs. It's good for the quality of life," Bush during a statement session at da Silva's retreat.

Administration officials and several Latin American analysts believe that Brazil, which initially endorsed the trade zone concept, can be persuaded to rejoin supporting nations. If so, Brazil, with its 182 million people and bustling economy, could influence the rest of the holdouts in the region.

"Our goal is to promote opportunity for people throughout the Americas, whether you live in Minnesota or Brazil," Bush said in his speech. "The best way to do this is by expanding free trade."

Da Silva said he's all for free trade and wants the United States to remove "unjustified barriers to our bilateral trade." He wants reductions in U.S. farm subsidies and more access to the U.S. farm market before Brazil opens its markets to U.S. competition.

Bush said he understood Silva's concern and said the United States would reduce subsidies and tariffs so long as America's European trading partners followed suit.

"We would very much love to tell our farmers the same thing the president wants to tell his farmers, that there's access to markets," Bush said.

Bush said the United States is leading the way in trying to get fair and balanced free trade and concurred with da Silva that the best opportunity to resolve the issue is a successful round of talks in the World Trade Organization.

Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister, said the U.S. goal of revived talks for a pan-hemispheric trade agreement would remain moot until the subsidy problem is solved.

"While that issue remains in doubt at the World Trade Organization, its going to be difficult to consider any other type of international agreements," he told reporters after the two presidents met.

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(Paulo Prada, a special correspondent for The Miami Herald in Brazil, contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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