- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

BUENOS AIRES — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez carried his anti-U.S. countertour to the Caribbean yesterday, adding stops in Haiti and Jamaica in what one analyst saw as evidence he was losing his mano-a-mano contest with President Bush.

Mr. Chavez has shadowed Mr. Bush on his weeklong Latin tour, traveling the length of the continent to promote his populist policies and socialist economic prescriptions as an alternative to the market-oriented solutions Mr. Bush offered.

While popular protests against Mr. Bush have stolen much of the news coverage, the press has been less friendly to Mr. Chavez.

“Chavez’s propaganda trip has failed to get on the front pages, while Bush’s embraces have been the main photos on newspapers across Latin America,” said Nelson Bocaranda, a Venezuelan political commentator who argued that Mr. Chavez had lost the public relations battle.

He said that explains why Mr. Chavez is pushing further into ideologically friendly territory, visiting countries he hadn’t originally scheduled even as Mr. Bush winds down his tour in Mexico tomorrow.

“Today, he added Haiti and Jamaica where his prolific wallet is planting money in many projects,” Mr. Bocaranda said.

But Mark Weisbrot, a Latin America specialist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, argued that Mr. Bush had lost ground to Mr. Chavez on the public relations front.

The trip, described by Mr. Bush at the outset as intended to demonstrate American interest in the region, “simply reminded people how unpopular he is in Latin America,” Mr. Weisbrot said.

The protests that have dogged Mr. Bush at every stop continued yesterday in Guatemala, where about 2,000 people threw bottles and burning sticks at police.

While suffering “a certain amount of humiliation,” Mr. Weisbrot said, Mr. Bush has managed to send a message to traditional elites who have lost power to leftist governments in Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

“He wanted to show that Washington is still fighting to get them back,” he said.

Mr. Chavez, meanwhile, has demonstrated his willingness to fight back, with fiery speeches at venues close to each of Mr. Bush’s stops.

“Chavez did what he is good at, and that is ‘show diplomacy,’ ” said Milos Alcalay, who served as Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Chavez from 2001 to 2004.

“He repeats the same old anti-imperialist slogans and nothing more. A four-day tour [to South America] by President Bush will not change things here, but neither will a trip or two by Chavez.”

Moderate leftists who Mr. Bush visited have been forced to walk a narrow line between the anti-American sentiment of their electorates and the economic value of U.S. trade ties — a delicate balancing act hinted at over the weekend by Uruguay’s Agriculture Minister Jose Mujica.

“Uruguay is better off than before this encounter,” Mr. Mujica told the radio program “Indice 810.” But when speaking about his personal meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. Mujica said, “it wasn’t easy for me and much less pleasing, but I certainly feel it was my duty.”

Mr. Alcalay said Mr. Bush’s trip should have come sooner, but that it was “good per se” and could lead to a richer Latin American agenda in Washington.

“You just can’t know how much was gained until he gets back to Washington and the agenda moves forward,” he said.

Mr. Alcalay said Mr. Chavez’s parallel tour did strengthen the Venezuelan president’s base, which consists of groups like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the leftist Argentinean organization that hosted Mr. Chavez on Friday, as well as the Sandinistas of Nicaragua and “other weirdo organizations from collapsed communist regimes.”

He said Mr. Chavez’s tour demonstrated that “the common hemispheric agenda” backed by Washington and supported by countries like Brazil, Chile and Colombia is “being sabotaged by the south-north confrontation promoted by Mr. Chavez.”

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