WASHINGTON — President Bush served up a spirited defense of his priorities in Latin America Wednesday, dismissing recent reforms by Cuba's new leadership as "empty gestures'' and pushing ambitious initiatives for Mexico and Colombia that face scrutiny by Democrats in Congress.
Bush made his first broad Latin America speech since traveling to the region in March of last year. He chose a friendly venue, the annual Washington conference held at the State Department by the Council of the Americas — a pro-trade business group that promotes closer ties between the United States and Latin America.
In an apparent attempt to define his Latin America legacy as the end of his presidential term draws near, Bush stuck to his conservative philosophy, touting the need for "social justice'' within the confines of free trade and conditioning U.S. aid programs to free market reforms.
Widely unpopular in the region, Bush is certain to leave his successor with a region divided over how to deal with Washington. Some like Mexico and Colombia have embraced closer ties with the United States while others like Venezuela and Bolivia have become sharply critical of U.S. policies.
Bush also has been accused by Democrats of ignoring Latin America and allowing anti-U.S. populists like Venezuelan President Hugo ChÍvez to mount the most determined challenge to U.S. influence since the end of the Cold War.
In his speech, Bush's most forceful remarks were reserved for the Castro government in Cuba, where he reiterated his long-held belief that the U.S. policy toward the island should not change unless the government first frees political prisoners and provides more political freedoms.
The speech was the first time Bush spoke in some detail of Cuban leader Raul Castro's decision to ease some restrictions, including letting Cubans purchase cell phones and stay at tourist hotels. The remarks came less than a day after Bush spoke via videoconference with dissident leader Martha Beatriz Roque, Berta Soler, the wife of a jailed activist, and Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, who spent 17 years in jail and was released last year. The three spoke from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Bush, who has often hosted Cuban dissidents at the White House, called the conversation an ''inspiring moment for me.''
''Some in the world marveled that perhaps change is on its way,'' Bush said. ''That's not how I view it. Until there's a change of heart and a change of compassion, and a change of how the Cuban government treats its people, there's no change at all.''
Havana ''has made empty gestures at reform,'' Bush said. ''Cuba will not be a land of liberty so long as free expression is punished and free speech can take place only in hushed whispers and silent prayers.''
''And Cuba will not become a place of prosperity just by easing restrictions on the sale of products that the average Cuban cannot afford,'' he added.
Bush swung to the drug war, defending his administration's initiatives to reduce demand for drugs at home as a way to stop the flow of drug money to the region. He said he wanted to ''make sure'' Congress passed a $1.4 billion anti-drug trafficking aid package for Mexico and Central America known as the MÎrida Initiative.
Bush expressed his ''admiration'' for Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who is locked in a bloody confrontation with drug cartels. Last week, 17 died in a shootout between rival factions of the Arellano Felix drug cartel, adding to more than 900 deaths from drug-related violence so far this year.
Bush and Calderon launched the Merida Initiative as a way for the United States to provide military and other aid to help Mexico combat traffickers, including helicopters to give Mexican troops more mobility.
A first $550 million installment is expected to be included in a $108 billion Iraq and Afghanistan supplamental war funding bill up for consideration by Congress in the coming weeks. Bush appeared wary that some Democrats in Congress may cut the military portions of the MÎrida Initiative and urged lawmakers to ''implement the strategy we proposed in full.''
Bush acknowledged what he called Latin America's îîsocial justice'' problems and highlighted U.S. aid to the region, including ''humanitarian assistance missions'' that are expected to treat 320,000 individuals this year, and providing $300 million for education programs since 2004.
But Bush also noted that U.S. aid came with strings attached. Programs like the Millennium Challenge Account provide millions of dollars in assistance provided poor countries meet certain governance benchmarks.
''I don't think it's too much to ask a government that receives U.S. aid to fight corruption,'' he said. "I don't think it's too much to ask a government that we help to invest in the health and education of their children. Nor do I think it's too much to ask for a government to accept marketplace economics.''
Repeating arguments made by Bush and other top administration officials before, the president urged Congress to pass a free trade agreement with Colombia, which Democrats say cannot be voted on now because of human rights concerns and the need to provide more assistance to U.S. workers impacted by trade pacts.
Bush also praised Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for bringing violence down in his country and drew a loud applause when he pledged ''not turn our back on one of our most steadfast allies.''
While Bush can claim some successes, like passing free trade deals with Chile, Peru and Central American nations, other initiatives closely monitored by Latin American countries have failed, like his proposal to overhaul U.S. immigration laws.
Joy Olson, who heads the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, said Latin Americans ''criticize Bush for having only three things to say about Latin America: Cuba, free trade, and drugs''
''Everyone recognizes that poverty and inequality are the central problems in Latin America today,'' she said. ''He mentions social justice, but has solutions like sending U.S. military doctors to treat the sick while on a tour of Latin America. That's a far cry from what Latin Americans mean by social justice.''
At the same conference, Colombian defense minister Juan Manuel Santos said the next administration would face a ''new and complex foreign policy challenge in the region.''
''It is a specter that, because it is profoundly anti-American, wants to destroy the Inter-American system'' and ''destroy the future of liberal democracy as a model of good government in Latin America.''
''The U.S. cannot afford to be indifferent or be perceived as being indifferent,'' he said.