By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 7, 2005
BRASILIA, Nov. 6 -- President Bush challenged Latin American leaders on Sunday to choose between competing visions, one that would ensure social justice through democracy and free enterprise and another that would reverse progress by eroding democratic institutions and heightening fear.
In a speech Bush gave at a hotel in the Brazilian capital, his most pointed words seemed to be aimed at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been harshly critical of the U.S.-backed vision of a free trade zone that would stretch from Alaska to the tip of Argentina.
Bush said the plan he supports for the region would ensure social justice through representative government, open markets and "faith in the transformative power of freedom in individual lives."
The opposing vision, he said, "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."
In his remarks to an audience that included university students, businesspeople and diplomats, Bush continued to push for the stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas. Chavez has been the most vocal opponent of the proposal, calling it an imperialist plan that would enhance the economic dominance of the United States.
"Our goal is to promote opportunity for people throughout the Americas, whether you live in Minnesota or Brazil," Bush said. "And the best way to do this is by expanding free and fair trade."
Bush called on the Inter-American Development Bank, which promotes economic growth in the region, to focus more closely on encouraging private investment and supporting small business. "The private sector is the engine of growth and job creation in this region," he said.
Bush's speech came on the heels of his participation in the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, which concluded Saturday with the 34 member countries still divided over creation of the regional free trade zone.
Bush used his one-day visit here to fan interest in the plan, meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has opposed it. With Latin America's largest population and largest economy, Brazil is crucial to U.S. efforts to build the support needed to ratify the trade agreement.
Lula has said he will not support the proposal without reductions in farm subsidies and tariffs in the United States and Europe. Bush has said the United States will press for an agreement to reduce both at upcoming World Trade Organization meetings, as long as the European Union and other trading partners do the same.
In the days before Bush arrived in Brazil, thousands of demonstrators stood outside the U.S. Embassy chanting and holding signs labeling Bush "Public Enemy No. 1." During Bush's visit to Argentina, some even larger demonstrations turned violent.
Responding to a question at a meeting of young leaders in Brazil, Bush said such protests were not unusual in democratic countries.
"We met in a society which allows people to express their different points of view . . . which is positive," Bush said. "I expect there to be dissent. That's what freedom is all about."
Lula is among a wave of populist or socialist leaders elected across Latin America in recent years by citizens who had grown restless awaiting the promised benefits of freer trade and private enterprise. While economic activity has escalated in many countries, the already significant gap between the region's rich and poor has also widened.
But after taking office, the new leaders have often proved more pragmatic than ideological. Lula rose to prominence as a labor leader and enjoys cordial relations with Cuban President Fidel Castro, long considered a pariah by the U.S. government. Yet the United States is Brazil's largest trading partner, and Lula has supported the concept of free trade in many contexts. Despite his differences with Bush on specific issues, Lula declared that relations with the United States were at a high point.
"When I was elected president, there were those who foresaw the deterioration of relations between Brazil and the U.S.," Lula said after his midday meeting with Bush. "They were roundly mistaken. On the contrary, our relations today are going through one of their best moments ever."
Bush agreed with Lula's assessment, saying that U.S. relations with Brazil "are essential, and they are strong."
After his speech, Bush left for Panama City, where he was scheduled to meet with President Martin Torrijos and visit the Panama Canal. Bush is to return to Washington on Monday night.