- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

President Bush heads to Latin America today for a weeklong charm offensive in five countries, a trip designed to push back regional anti-American, pro-socialist sentiment being fomented by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“The United States brings a message of open markets and open government to the region,” Mr. Bush told reporters this week about his trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

“I strongly believe that government-run industry is inefficient and will lead to more poverty,” Mr. Bush said, taking a swipe at Mr. Chavez’s interventionist policies.

Mr. Chavez intends to challenge Mr. Bush’s goodwill mission to highlight U.S. aid to South and Central America.

The man who once called Mr. Bush a “devil” will hold an anti-U.S. rally, dubbed an “anti-imperialism” rally, tomorrow at a Buenos Aires soccer stadium that holds 40,000 people.

About the same time, Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush are scheduled to arrive in Montevideo, Uruguay, about 100 miles away.

Mr. Chavez said last month that Mr. Bush’s trip is an “offensive destined to the abyss of failure.”

“I think the U.S. president now has nothing to find in Latin America,” Mr. Chavez said.

Mr. Bush, when asked about the Chavez rally, said, “I go a lot of places and there are street rallies. And my attitude is, I love freedom and the right for people to express themselves.”

Mr. Bush also expressed hope this week that Cuba might rid itself of communism when ailing dictator Fidel Castro dies.

Mr. Castro, 80, a longtime U.S. foe, handed over control of Cuba to his brother Raul last summer after undergoing emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding.

“I don’t know how long he’s going to live,” Mr. Bush said of Fidel Castro. “But, nevertheless, I do believe that the system of government that he’s imposed upon the people ought not live if that’s what the people decide.”

Mr. Bush is taking the longest trip to Latin America in his six-year-old presidency. At home, he is grappling with the Iraq war and the perjury conviction Tuesday of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

He said yesterday he will attempt to rehabilitate the U.S. image in the region.

“Since I’ve been the president, our bilateral aid to Latin America has increased from $800 million to $1.6 billion [annually]. … And yet, we don’t get much credit for it,” Mr. Bush said on CNN’s Spanish-language channel.

“The trip really is to remind people that we care. 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,” he said.

Mr. Bush will push for free trade with Uruguay and for increased ethanol production in Brazil.

Although neither of these goals is immediately realistic, they represent good symbolic gestures, said Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

U.S. talks with Uruguay and Brazil, along with the other countries, “will help redress this misperception that the radical left has overtaken Latin America,” Mr. Llosa said.

“Clearly Chavez has gained some ground and there are a few countries that are under his influence, like Bolivia and perhaps Ecuador,” Mr. Llosa said. “But the real story is that many of the governments there that have left-wing roots — Chile, Brazil, Peru — have moved to the center or even the center-right and are willing to embrace globalization and free trade and engage in relations with the United States.”

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