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.
His largess has not gone unnoticed in the region. Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, from whom Chávez has pledged to buy about $3 billion in Argentine bonds, is allowing the Venezuelan leader to use a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires to hold an anti-Bush rally expected to attract tens of thousands Friday night, when Bush will arrive in neighboring Uruguay.
That may explain why Bush is so intent on calling attention to U.S. aid, telling interviewers and audiences that he has increased it from $860 million to $1.6 billion. "And yet we don't get much credit for it," Bush told CNN's Spanish-language network. "And I want the taxpayers, I want the American people to get credit for their generosity in Central and South America."
Analysts note that Bush is using a misleading base line, comparing this year's figure with 2001, a year when Latin American aid was essentially cut in half temporarily to make up for a large military aid package for Colombia and five neighbors. Moreover, Bush never mentions in his comments that he just proposed cutting the figure he cites in next year's budget.
"The total aid for 2000 was actually higher than the 2008 budget request because of the Plan Colombia supplemental, and in 2002 the amount of aid was about the same as it is now," said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington. "So unfortunately, this change in rhetoric isn't reflected in the budget."
Speaking with reporters on Air Force One, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, argued that debt relief and the new Millennium Challenge program, which provides additional money to select countries that meet certain standards, mean that even more money is flowing to the region. And he said trade and remittances by immigrants in the United States should be taken into account.
"I would ask people when you think about the American assistance to the people of Latin America to look at the full, broad gauge of American engagement, not just what the government does, but what business does, what the [nongovernmental organization] does, what trade does, remittances, all the rest," he said. "It is a huge project, and it is all aimed at helping the people of Latin America."
Baker reported from Sao Paulo.