By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
He talked of grinding poverty and called it "a scandal" that democracy and capitalism have not delivered more to Latin Americans. The working poor need change, he declared. He invoked Simon Bolivar, the "great liberator," and vowed to "complete the revolution" and bring true "social justice" to the region
Hugo Chávez? No, George W. Bush.
As he prepares to embark on a six-day trip to Latin America this week, the president is launching a new campaign to compete with Chávez for the region's hearts and minds, employing language mirroring the Venezuelan leader's leftist populism but rooted in traditional American conservatism. After six years of focusing elsewhere in the world, Bush in his final two years wants to convince the nation's neighbors that, as he put it yesterday, "we care."
But he faces an enormous gulf between ambition and reality, analysts say. While Bush cited John F. Kennedy's effort to help lift up the region through the Alliance for Progress, the president has limited tools at this point. He offered some modest initiatives on education, housing and health care yesterday; but the new Democratic Congress has shown no eagerness to ratify three new free-trade pacts he has brokered with the region. And many in Latin America have already rendered their judgments about Bush and are awaiting his successor.
"It's a visit after six-plus years of neglect," Sidney Weintraub, a longtime U.S. diplomat and specialist in the region, said at a forum sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue center yesterday. "There's little that the Latin Americans expect from him anymore."
Bush wants to counter that perception with a message of empathy for Latin Americans who have not seen much benefit from free markets and elections -- the core constituency that has fueled the rise of Chávez and other leftists in the region, such as Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. One in four Latin Americans lives on $2 a day or less.
"In an age of growing prosperity and abundance, this is a scandal -- and it's a challenge," Bush said yesterday in a speech previewing his trip to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "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."
Bush never used Chávez's name but cited his hero, Bolivar, and implicitly seemed to offer an alternative in an address spiced with Spanish phrases. "The millions across our hemisphere who every day suffer the degradations of poverty and hunger have a right to be impatient," he said. "And I'm going to make them this pledge: The goal of this great country, the goal of a country full of generous people, is an Americas where the dignity of every person is respected, where all find room at the table and where opportunity reaches into every village and every home."
Bush announced an additional $75 million over three years to teach more Latin Americans to speak English and help them study in the United States, and an additional $385 million to help underwrite mortgages for working families in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Central America. He also said he will order the USNS Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, to make port calls in 12 Caribbean and Latin American countries to treat 85,000 patients and perform 1,500 operations.
"The president wants to show a rededication to Latin America," said Peter DeShazo, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere in Bush's first term and is now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This comes at a time when there's a widespread sense that the administration hasn't paid a lot of attention to Latin America, which is understandable because of Iraq. . . . This is a signal. They're trying to show they're committed to the region."
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley disputed the premise that the administration has neglected Latin America, but he agreed that the government's efforts have been overshadowed by the Middle East and other issues. "It's not gotten the attention it deserves," he said. "That's one of the reasons we're doing this trip."
Hadley and other White House officials said it is not an anti-Chávez tour, but the Venezuelan leader may yet haunt the president along the way. Chávez, who called Bush "the devil" during a U.N. speech last year, has suggested that he would send sulfur to Brazil and plans to lead a protest in Argentina when the president arrives in neighboring Uruguay.
Bush will leave for Brazil on Thursday and will then travel to Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico before returning March 14. In Sao Paulo, he will seal a deal with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to help Central American and Caribbean nations develop ethanol, an alternative to oil that has become a big focus of Bush's energy plan. Although Bush has been to Colombia before, he will be the first U.S. president since Ronald Reagan in 1982 to visit Bogota, a decision intended to showcase improvements in security in a country torn by civil war and cocaine trafficking -- although he will not spend the night.
When he visits Mexico, he will bypass Mexico City, where his presence would surely generate large protests, and instead meet with President Felipe Calderón in the Yucatan city of Merida. It will be the first meeting between the two since Calderón was inaugurated, and the session is bound to be marked by tension over the U.S. political debate on immigration. Bush has pushed for easing rules for illegal immigrants but has also signed legislation calling for more barriers along the border.
The itinerary will put Bush in the same room with both leftist and rightist leaders, a schedule intended to show that he can work with any "right-thinking governments," as Hadley put it, that support democracy and reasonable economic policies. To further make that point, Bush plans to host Lula at Camp David at the end of the month, making him the first Latin American leader at the presidential retreat in 16 years.
In some ways, the trip will bring Bush full circle from his days as a candidate in 2000, when he cited his experience as governor of Texas and vowed a robust engagement with the region. "Latin America was going to be more than just an afterthought -- remember those days?" said Michael Shifter, a vice president of Inter-American Dialogue. "I think he's going to try to repair some of the damage. . . . There has been a lot of damage in terms of distrust with the region over the last couple years, and I think he wants to keep that in check."