White House

Bush reaches out to the poor of Latin America

WASHINGTON—President Bush, laying the groundwork for an eight-day trip to Latin America that's likely to deepen the struggle for influence with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, acknowledged Monday that U.S.-backed economic policies and free-trade agreements have failed to lift millions of Latin Americans from poverty.

Sprinkling his speech with Spanish words and phrases, Bush announced a series of relatively modest efforts to help the poor, including a plan to send U.S. military medical teams to the region.

"The fact is that tens of millions of our brothers and sisters to the south have seen little improvement in their daily lives, and this has led some to question the value of democracy," he told members of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "The working poor of Latin America need change, and the United States of America is committed to that change."

The speech was the opening shot in a battle with Chavez that will play out during the president's travels. After flying to Brazil on Thursday, Bush will stop in Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

Chavez, a fiery leftist who recently called Bush the "king of liars," also will be on the road. He'll host an anti-Bush rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday in advance of Bush's stop in neighboring Uruguay.

But Bush has more on his mind than Chavez. The five-nation swing also is intended to calm criticism that the president has neglected Latin America and to show that he can put aside ideological differences in the spirit of cooperation.

His trip comes as Latin America is emerging from an unprecedented year of elections, with more than a dozen new leaders taking office. Most of the victors are left wing, although most also favor free enterprise.

In Brazil and Uruguay, he'll meet the kind of moderate leftist leaders that prevail in the region. His second leg of the trip will feature encounters with the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico—all led by more conservative ideological soul mates.

In Mexico, Bush will meet President Felipe Calderon, in Merida, in the Yucatan Peninsula, a site picked to avoid the threat of massive protests in Mexico City.

Though a conservative, Calderon, who narrowly defeated a leftist challenger, is taking a different line from his predecessor, Vicente Fox, by putting less emphasis on immigration issues and focusing on more practical bread-and-butter issues such as investment and anti-poverty programs.

In Brazil, Bush is expected to announce a joint effort to promote the production of ethanol made from sugar cane. An expanded market for the alternative fuel could help economies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, though some corn-based ethanol producers in the United States worry that the initiative could hurt their business.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a moderate socialist, has emerged as one of Bush's allies in the region. As a sign of their developing relationship, Bush has invited Lula to join him later this month at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

"The objectives of this trip are not to unveil a grandiose vision for the hemisphere," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said Bush would try to "present another option" to Chavez and show "the softer, gentler side of the Bush administration."

Although Bush generally likes to stick to business during his foreign travels, he'll take time out to tour a national park in Uruguay and visit Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Mexico. He'll also meet with poor children in Brazil, hold a roundtable discussion with Colombians of African descent and visit an agricultural cooperative in Guatemala.

In Monday's speech, Bush said he wants to reach out to Latin Americans who "remain stuck in poverty and shut off from the promises of the new century."

"My message to those `trabajadores y campesinos' is, you have a friend in the United States of America," he said.

But many Latin Americans don't consider Bush their friend. A poll last fall of 20,000 residents in 18 countries found that Bush and Chavez were equally unpopular, with approval ratings of just 39 percent. Only Fidel Castro fared worse, with 27 percent.

"Unfortunately, in over 40 years of study of the region, I have rarely seen a moment where there is as much mistrust of the United States and as strong a rejection of the U.S. posture in the world," said Arturo Valenzuela, a former Clinton official who heads the Latin America program at Georgetown University.

Other experts echoed his assessment.

"There's a great deal of anti-American feeling in the region. There's a certain resonance in what Hugo Chavez says about the United States," said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, an organization that promotes closer hemispheric ties.

Although U.S. officials want to provide a counterweight to Chavez, they don't want the trip to become a direct contest between the two leaders. In fact, Bush generally avoids mentioning the Venezuelan leader because of concerns that it would enhance Chavez's stature.

Still, there's no question that Chavez is the uninvited guest on the fringe of Bush's trip. Hakim said Bush has yet to find the best way to deal with Chavez.

"Do you ignore him? Do you confront him? Do you try to get other countries to confront him?" Hakim asked. "So far, the U.S. hasn't had much success with any of those."

Related stories from McClatchy DC