Sunday, March 11, 2007

ANCHORENA PARK, Uruguay — It’s the name that dare not be spoken, at least by anyone connected to President Bush.

For the past week, one name has been studiously missing from Mr. Bush’s interviews and press conferences before and during his weeklong Latin America trip: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who says the American leader is afraid to mention his name.

But as the hemisphere’s loudest leader and self-proclaimed prophet of “21st-century socialism,” Mr. Chavez has made it his business to insert himself into Mr. Bush’s travels, staging a rally in Argentina Friday, in Bolivia yesterday, calling Mr. Bush “politically dead” and leading a chant of “Gringo, go home.”

Mr. Bush yesterday, for the second time in as many days, fielded a question from the American press about why he refuses to mention his nemesis. But, asked if he was afraid to mention Mr. Chavez, Mr. Bush did not take the bait.

“I’ve come to South America and Central America to advance a positive, constructive diplomacy that is being conducted by my government on behalf of the American people,” he said, adding that he thinks it’s working.

“I would call our diplomacy quiet and effective diplomacy — diplomacy all aimed at helping people, aimed at elevating the human condition, aimed at expressing the great compassion of the American people,” Mr. Bush said.

It’s become a sort of test between the press and the president, with both American and foreign reporters having asked him nine times during the last week about Mr. Chavez.

It’s a game the White House says it is trying not to play.

“I know you want to make this a trip about Chavez — it’s not,” White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters traveling on Air Force One late Friday, becoming the first administration official during the trip to utter the Venezuelan president’s name publicly.

Still, it’s clear Mr. Chavez is on Mr. Bush’s mind. Last year, while visiting with immigrant business owners in Omaha, Neb., Mr. Bush discovered one of them was from Venezuela.

“I am a little worried about your country,” he told the woman, Lourdes Secola, adding, “sometimes leaders show up who do a great disservice to the traditions and people of a country.”

Mr. Bush met yesterday with Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez here at Anchorena Park, a wildlife refuge that is this country’s version of Camp David.

While he is from a left-leaning party, Mr. Vazquez is considered one of the moderate-left leaders Mr. Bush can work with, along with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

And Uruguay is considered a success story for the United States. The nation is pushing for more open trade with the United States, and the Bush administration argues it is a model other nations can follow, rather than turn to Mr. Chavez and his oil wealth for help.

Mr. Bush also will visit Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico — which all have right-of-center governments — before returning home Wednesday.

Even if the president won’t mention his name, everything the American leader is doing during this trip can be seen — and is, by some observers — in the context of Mr. Chavez.

Analysts said Mr. Bush’s overture to Brazil to try to boost ethanol as a replacement fuel could hit Mr. Chavez where it hurts most — dampening the good will that comes from Venezuela’s oil reserves and the cash that has flowed because of high oil prices.

“It’s anti-Chavez tour lite,” Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said before Mr. Bush departed for the trip. “He’s trying to mark out, both on the left and the right, the countries he can deal with.”

Mr. Selee’s colleague, Cynthia J. Arnson, deputy director of the Latin American Program, had even predicted Mr. Bush would not mention Mr. Chavez by name during the trip.

She said Mr. Bush has something in common with Mr. Chavez — both are stuck in the lower-third tier of popularity among Latin Americans, according to polling done by Latinobarometro, though Mr. Bush did hold a two percentage point edge.

This is not the first time Mr. Chavez has tried to steal Mr. Bush’s stage. In September, after the U.S. president’s address to the United Nations, Mr. Chavez used his own address to call Mr. Bush the “devil” and said the podium “still smells of sulphur today.”

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