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Latin America tour allows Bush to escape Washington troubles

WASHINGTON—President Bush travels Thursday to Latin America in hope of reviving a stalled hemispheric free-trade plan, improving a U.S. image scarred by the Iraq War and setting aside—at least temporarily—the problems that have eroded his popularity.

Bush will begin his five-day, three-country tour in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where he'll attend the Summit of the Americas with leaders from 33 other Western Hemisphere countries. Free trade and finding ways to eradicate poverty top the agenda of the two-day meeting.

"The message is one of jobs and democracy and honesty and open government," Bush told a group of foreign journalists this week. "Good foreign policy starts in your neighborhood."

After the summit, Bush heads to Brazil Saturday to meet with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Sunday, he flies to Panama for talks with President Martin Torrijos Espino before returning to Washington Monday evening.

U.S. presidents normally view overseas travel as a chance to escape domestic political problems, look like a leader to the folks back home and bask in the cozy camaraderie of fellow heads of state. Bush's Latin America tour begins a busy November of foreign travel that will keep him out of Washington for nearly half the month. From Nov. 14 to Nov. 21, Bush will go to Asia, with stops in South Korea, Japan, China and Mongolia.

But if the president is looking for a break from controversies such as the indictment of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and other woes at home, he's going to find a different crop of problems on this trip.

Bush isn't popular in Latin America, largely because of his decision to go to war against Iraq and because he's viewed as unresponsive to the region's needs. Large anti-Bush rallies are expected in Argentina and Brazil.

"The divisions within the region and with the United States are so strong that it's kind of hard to imagine anything more than hopeful and vague statements coming out of this trip," said Julia Sweig, a Latin America analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the upcoming book "Friendly Fire: Anti-Americanism Gone Global."

At the two-day summit, Bush will try to resuscitate a planned Free Trade Area of the Americas that would extend from Canada to Chile. The FTAA, which originally was supposed to be up and running by this year, would eliminate or substantially lower tariffs on goods moving between countries. It also would streamline customs and remove other barriers to trade.

But talk of reviving the trade plan could run into opposition from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose anti-American rhetoric and close affiliation to Cuban President Fidel Castro annoy Washington.

Chavez dismisses U.S.-backed trade and economic policies as capitalist ploys that would only widen the gap between the hemisphere's wealthy and poor, a view held by many in a region with the world's most unequal income distribution.

The Venezuelan president has warned against Yankee imperialism and has said he is preparing his oil-rich country for an American invasion. Administration officials have repeatedly stated that they have no plans to strike Venezuela

"He plays the anti-American card," said Timothy J. Kehoe, a University of Minnesota economics professor. "The more rhetoric that comes out of Washington against him, the more it helps him. That lessens the focus of attention from working out a trade deal with Brazil. For the U.S. to push forward in Latin America, the crucial country is Brazil, not Chavez."

Chavez says he plans to make his presence felt. He said he expects a "beautiful" debate in Mar del Plata over the free-trade plan that he's proclaimed "dead."

"It will have to be buried," Chavez said Sunday. "The people of this continent will bury it, and another model of integration will emerge."

Bush is expected to have an easier time dealing with Brazil's da Silva. Brazil is viewed as a key strategic partner and Bush has been cultivating da Silva, a left-of-center leader, since his election in 2002.

Da Silva, a former labor leader, has embraced fiscal discipline and a free market philosophy that he hopes will create jobs and prompt economic growth that will help eradicate poverty and other social ills in the world's fifth-most populous nation, with 186 million people.

"Brazil is a big, big, important country in this world, and the United States recognizes that," Bush said. "So whether it be trade ... or whether it be working together on the science and technology ... or it be promoting democracy in the neighborhood, the relationship is vital and important."

Like Bush, da Silva is experiencing troubles at home. A bribes-for-votes congressional corruption scandal affecting da Silva's ruling party has sapped some of his popularity.

Bush rounds out his trip Monday with a visit to Panama City. There he will meet with Torrijos and lay a wreath at an American cemetery where nearly 5,200 people are interred who either served in the U.S. armed forces or helped build or operate the Panama Canal.

The president and first lady Laura Bush will tour the first set of locks on the Pacific entrance to the canal. The president also will take time to talk baseball with Panamanian youth.

"We share with the Panamanians a goal of a stable hemisphere that is democratic, secure and prosperous," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said.

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

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