Bush Theme of Doubling Latin Aid Is Seen as Misleading

President Bush and Laura Bush arrive in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a tour that includes four other Latin American nations.
President Bush and Laura Bush arrive in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a tour that includes four other Latin American nations. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel and Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 9, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, March 8 -- As President Bush arrived in Brazil on Thursday, he brought with him a message that he believes has been lost on the region: U.S. concerns about persistent poverty have prompted a doubling of economic aid to Latin America since 2001.

"I do worry about the fact that some say, 'Well, the United States hasn't paid enough attention to us, or the United States really isn't anything more than worried about terrorism,' " Bush said in an interview broadcast throughout Latin America on CNN's Spanish-language network Thursday. "In fact, the record has been a strong record."

To make the claim, however, Bush is relying on what some analysts called an accounting gimmick. In fact, they said, U.S. aid to Latin America has remained relatively stable since 2000. And the budget Bush sent to Congress last month proposed cutting aid from $1.6 billion to $1.47 billion, an 8 percent reduction.

"Instead of playing hat tricks with the aid numbers or inventing mini-programs for a presidential trip, the Bush administration should invest more seriously in the kinds of aid that really wins friends and influences people in Latin America," said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the nonprofit Latin America Working Group in Washington.

Administration officials acknowledge that they are cutting foreign direct assistance this year but said it still remains much higher than during the Clinton administration. "On a trend line, it's a little bit lower than where it's been over the past several years," Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon Jr. told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. "But it's still considerably higher than it was previously."

The debate about aid figures is a proxy for a broader debate about whether Bush has neglected Latin America since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In comments leading up to his arrival in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Thursday evening, Bush emphasized that he would pursue "social justice" in the region, an ambition met with deep skepticism by many who live here.

According to Latinobarómetro, a comprehensive annual opinion poll conducted throughout Latin America, regional assessments of the U.S. impact in the world, its relations with Latin American nations and Bush's performance have dropped steadily each year since 2001.

"After September 11, Latin America all of a sudden found itself alone and started taking care of itself," said Marta Lagos, executive director of Latinobarómetro, which is based in Chile. "Now, this is like a broken marriage: You try to put things back together, and you come calling with a bouquet of flowers and start talking about doing all the things you've been asked to do before. But to the other person, it doesn't sound convincing."

During his six-day tour of Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, Bush plans to promote initiatives that expand on the usual U.S. regional agenda of trade agreements and counter-narcotics programs. He has announced new programs to train teachers in Latin America, the June arrival of a U.S. Navy medical ship that will provide health services in a dozen Latin American and Caribbean countries, low-income housing initiatives and a regional energy alliance to promote the production of ethanol.

That shift in emphasis might not convince most people in the region, according to analysts, but it could be a starting point to reclaim the United States' once-dominant standing as a regional ally. By recognizing the priorities of Latin Americans, the United States could find a more receptive audience for its free-trade and security agendas.

"We have got to be able to talk to our friends in the region in terms that they themselves find to be of interest," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a Washington advocacy group. "And it's not to say that it's some kind of window dressing -- I'm not saying that at all -- but I think this change in rhetoric is part of a more comprehensive approach to the region where trade and security issues are but one part."

The move toward a more social service-based foreign policy comes after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has broadened his reach by bankrolling projects addressing those same concerns -- opening health clinics, launching poverty relief initiatives and forging regional fuel alliances. Earlier this week, when U.S. cargo planes delivered $1.1 million in disaster relief to flooded areas in Bolivia, Chávez trumped the offer by contributing $15 million.

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