Guatemalans Greet Bush on Visit to Improve U.S. Image

Smiling Guatemalan children warmly greeted President Bush with cries of "Hola!" and gave first lady Laura Bush lilies Monday as the president worked to burnish the U.S. image in Latin America.

Guatemala's President Oscar Berger and his wife took the Bushes to nearby Santa Cruz Balanya, a town of about 10,000 mostly indigenous Guatemalans to stress the need for social justice and equality.

Bush visited the site of a U.S. military medical readiness and training exercise team, which bring military doctors from both nations to provide medical, dental, surgical and optometrical services for underserved rural areas. Afterward, the Bushes went to the town square, where they listened to a marimba band in front of a yellow church.

There, they walked along the edge of a cheering crowd of about 500 people, shaking hands to greetings of "Hola!" The crowd also cheered Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Frame-by-frame, the images of Bush's visit to Guatemala are depicting sharp contrasts, with the leader of the richest nation reaching out to the impoverished.

Undeterred by protests that have dogged Bush at every stop on his five-nation Latin American trip, Bush is working to convince Guatemalans that the United States is a compassionate nation. It's the same message he delivered earlier at stops in Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia.

"It's very important for the people of South America and Central America to know that the United States cares deeply about the human condition, and that much of our aid is aimed at helping people realize their God-given potential," Bush said Sunday in Bogota, Colombia.

His goodwill tour also serves as a counterweight to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has been doing his own tour of Latin America. On Sunday in Bolivia, Chavez called for a socialist counterattack against the American "empire." Chavez has been pumping his nation's oil profits into social programs across the region to further the leftward political shift he's leading in the United States' backyard.

Using his own Marine One helicopter, Bush will fly around this mountainous country, about the size of Tennessee, for a series of events meant to show that strong democratic reforms can improve the lives of Guatemalans.

He'll tour Labradores Mayas, a thriving vegetable packing station in Chirijuyu that has received $350,000 in U.S. assistance since 2003 and is taking advantage of eased trade restrictions under the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement.

Congress narrowly passed the trade pact last year and Bush wants lawmakers to approve of three similar ones with Colombia, Panama and Peru. He acknowledges that these are "tough votes," but failing to get congressional approval would blunt Bush's weeklong message that free trade and democratic reforms can help lift Latin Americans from poverty.

The vegetable packing station Bush is visiting was started in the early 1990s by an indigenous farmer named Mariano Canu. The association of 66 small farming families produces 95,000 heads of lettuce a week that are sold in Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras. It employs 200 indigenous farmers and is one of the major vegetable suppliers for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Central American supermarkets.

Nearly three-quarters of Guatemala's indigenous people, descendants of native Mayans, live in poverty. Many who have protested Bush's visit don't agree with U.S. immigration policy and believe current trade agreements between the countries have kept Guatemalans from rising out of poverty.

The distribution of income throughout Guatemala is lopsided. The richest 20 percent of the population receives two-thirds of all income. As a result, about 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, including more than 7 million who live in extreme poverty.

On Sunday, in Tecpan, more than 100 Mayan Indians protested Bush's visit, holding signs that read: "No more blood for oil." The group is angry that Bush will be visiting the sacred Iximche archaeological site, founded as the capital of the Kaqchiqueles kingdom before the Spanish conquest in 1524.

Mayan priests say they will purify the sacred archaeological site at Iximche to rid it of any "bad spirits" after Bush is there.

"That a person like (Bush) with the persecution of our migrant brothers in the United States, with the wars he has provoked is going to walk in our sacred lands is an offense for the Mayan people and their culture," said Juan Tiney, director of a Mayan non-governmental organization with close ties to Mayan religious and political leaders.

Back in the capital, Bush and Berger will talk about trade and immigration. The money that Guatemalans in the United States send back to the nation has become a significant part of the nation's economy.