WASHINGTON – President Bush is challenging a widespread perception in Latin America of U.S. neglect that has helped fuel leftist leader Hugo Chavez's rising influence in America's backyard.
Bush and his wife, Laura, left Thursday on a five-nation tour to argue that strong democratic governments hold the promise of prosperity. He hopes his journey will resonate with the one in four Latin Americans who live on less than $2 a day and wonder whether democracy will ever deliver them a better life.
"The trip is to remind people that we care," Bush said in an interview Wednesday with CNN En Espanol. "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.' And when, in fact, the record has been a strong record."
But Bush, with just two years left in his presidency, has a weak hand. Anti-Americanism and Bush's poor image, tainted by the war in Iraq, have only fueled Chavez's influence in the region and beyond.
The fiery leader of oil-rich Venezuela, who has labeled Bush "the devil" and dismisses him as the "little gentleman from the North," plans to play to this discontent. He has called for protests during Bush's stay and is leading a rally in Argentina when the president visits neighboring Uruguay.
The president's message: "Regardless of what Hugo Chavez says about us, we're not the bogeyman," said Russell Crandall, a former Western Hemisphere director at the National Security Council who is now at the Center for American Progress.
Bush has packed a suitcase of strategies for nurturing trade, fighting drug-traffickers and curbing poverty and social inequality for his trip, which also will take him to Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil, where protests on Wednesday preceded his visit.
Protesters, most of them women from the Via Campesina farmworkers movement, briefly shut down an iron ore mine, invaded an ethanol distillery and took over the Rio de Janeiro offices of Brazil's National Development Bank. Fresh graffiti reading "Get Out, Bush! Assassin!" in bright red letters popped up along busy highways near the locations in Sao Paulo where Bush will appear as he kicks off his Latin American tour.
Protest organizers denounced foreign investment in the vast sugarcane fields that are used to produce Brazil's ethanol.
Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are expected to sign an accord to develop standards to help turn ethanol into an internationally traded commodity, and to promote sugar cane-based ethanol production in Central America and the Caribbean to meet rising international demand.
Bush leaves behind fights in Washington over money for an unpopular war, new criticism about inadequate care of wounded U.S. troops returning home from Iraq and this week's conviction of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for lying and obstructing an investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.
When he first became president, Bush promised that the United States' relationship with the region, Mexico in particular, was a top priority. His first state dinner was for former Mexican President Vicente Fox. The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, turned Bush's focus to the Middle East.
Administration officials now are heralding 2007 as the "year of engagement" for the United States in Latin America. The White House says this is not Bush's farewell tour to Latin America, a hint that the president is likely to go to the region again.
Soon after he returns, Bush will host the president of Brazil at Camp David, the first time a Latin American leader has been at the presidential retreat since the early 1990s. And later this year, Bush hosts a White House conference on the Western Hemisphere to discuss the best way to deliver aid.
In a speech on Monday, Bush said a Navy medical ship would make port calls throughout the region to treat 85,000 patients and do 1,500 surgeries. He said the administration would set up a center in Panama to train nurses and other health care workers, spend money to help young people improve their English and expand a program to underwrite mortgages for working families in the region.
Those who criticize what they consider Bush's lack of attention to the region say sending the Navy medical ship, The Comfort, echoed what Chavez calls one of his greatest achievements: a public health system, funded by Venezuela's oil wealth, that has new clinics, refurbished hospitals and thousands of Cuban doctors providing free checkups for the poor.
"The U.S. has programs in Latin America, but they go largely unnoticed," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, Mexico director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Bush will try to highlight some of these programs to counter this perception that the Bush administration is only interested in Iraq — only interested in security. It's an attempt to try to show a softer, gentler Bush."
The White House notes that foreign assistance to Latin America has grown from more than $800 million when he first took office to $1.6 billion. While total aid to Latin America is up, the budget request Bush submitted to Congress in January reduces money for development assistance and programs for children's health and survival, said Dan Restrepo, a former member of the Democratic staff of the House International Relations Committee.