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Bush Embarks on Longest Trip to Latin America

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007; 11:54 AM

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- President Bush embarked today on his longest trip ever to Latin America in an effort to reassure a region that has felt neglected for years and to offer a fresh U.S. commitment to what he calls "social justice" for the impoverished neighbors of the United States.

Accompanied by first lady Laura Bush, the president took off from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington this morning for a daylong flight here, where he will begin his tour with a series of events tomorrow. After his stop here, the president will travel to Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico before returning to Washington next Wednesday.

"This is a long trip and the reason why is I want to remind people throughout our neighborhood that America cares about them," Bush said in an interview yesterday with CNN's Spanish language channel. "And I bring a message of hope, a message that says we care about the human condition, and a message of accomplishment."

Bush said he has increased aid to Latin America during his presidency. "And yet we don't get much credit for it," he said. "And I want the taxpayers, I want the American people to get credit for their generosity in Central and South America."

The trip gives Bush an opportunity to escape to some extent the domestic political turmoil back in Washington, where Congress has been holding hearings into the mistreatment of wounded soldiers and the dismissals of several prosecutors while a federal jury just convicted former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby of perjury and obstruction of justice. But as with all foreign trips, events on the homefront have a way of following a president overseas.

Bush's tour of Latin America appears designed to counter the influence of Venezuelan Hugo Chavez, the fiery leftist who has galvanized many in the region with his flamboyant anti-American rhetoric. Although the White House denies that it is an anti-Chavez tour and Bush goes out of his way to avoid mentioning the Venezuelan's name, the president's message of concern over poverty and social issues seems targeted at the masses who have been at the core of Chavez's constituency.

During a speech in Washington on Monday, Bush offered a few modest new initiatives intended to help provide education, housing and health care to the poor in Latin America. In a move that resembled Chavez's sponsorship of Cuban doctors traveling the region, Bush ordered the USNS Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, to make port calls at a dozen nations in the region and provide treatment for 85,000 people and perform up to 1,500 operations.

But analysts said it will take more than that for Bush to change minds in a region where polls show he is particularly unpopular. "Anti-American sentiment has never been higher," said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Chavez has come to personify that. "If Chavez is a metaphor for all that has gone wrong in the hemisphere, that's what this trip is about."

And others dismissed the president's boasts about aid for Latin America. "The United States will spend more money in Iraq during the six days [of his trip] than the president has proposed in spending for the whole hemisphere in" the next fiscal year, said Dan Restrepo, director of the Americas Project at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Administration officials distinguished what Bush is doing from Chavez's oil-funded programs for his neighbors. "Our understanding of what President Chavez is up to is quite different," Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for the Western hemisphere, told reporters in Washington yesterday. "I mean, he has a message for the region which is confrontational, it's conflictive, it has a heavy dose of anti-Americanism . . . And ultimately, it's about creating dependency, dependency on cheap oil, dependency on foreign assistance, which is political in nature."

Beyond his overarching theme, Bush has specific business to conduct in each country on his itinerary. Here in Brazil, he will meet with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, one of his closest allies in the region, and seal a deal intended to promote ethanol production in Central America and the Caribbean. Brazil and the United States make most of the world's ethanol -- mainly from corn in the United States and mainly from sugar here. But Bush aides have ruled out negotiations to lower a 54 percent tariff on Brazilian ethanol, much to the consternation of officials here.

Still, in a sign of friendship with Lula, a more moderate leftist than Chavez, Bush announced before departing Washington that he will host the Brazilian president at Camp David at the end of the month, the first time a Latin American leader will stay at the presidential retreat since 1991.

In Uruguay, Bush will be the first U.S. president to visit since his father. The mayor of Montevideo who welcomed George H.W. Bush back then, Tabare Vazquez, is now president. But the visit may be marred by a demonstration organized by Chavez across the Rio de la Plata river in Buenos Aires.

Bush has visited Colombia before but will be the first president to visit Bogota since Ronald Reagan in 1982, a destination chosen to highlight improved security in a strife-torn country. President Alvaro Uribe is perhaps Bush's strongest ally in the region and the major recipient of U.S. aid, but he is currently ensnared in a scandal over government ties to right-wing paramilitary groups. And despite the security improvements, Bush still will spend just a few hours on the ground and not stay overnight.

Bush then heads for the first time to Guatemala, which is caught up in its own troubles lately with an incident in which police officers killed several Salvadoran congressmen they took for drug dealers and then were killed themselves in prison mysteriously afterward. The president's last stop will be Merida on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, where he will meet with President Felipe Calderon for the first time since Calderon was inaugurated.

Calderon, while a conservative like his predecessor, Vicente Fox, is keeping more of a distance from Bush, according to analysts, a reflection of the sense in Mexico that the Bush-Fox relationship did not result in many tangible benefits.

"The Felipe Calderon administration is not interested in atmospherics," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They don't want any references to 'the two cowboys.' Because at the end of the day, every meeting between Bush and Fox was about these two old friends. But from the Mexican perspective, there were never any results."


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