Monday, March 5, 2007

President Bush yesterday announced that his five-country trip to Latin America will be accompanied by an increase in U.S. aid to the region, to promote “social justice,” democracy and increased economic opportunity.

“Tens of millions of our brothers and sisters to the South have seen little improvement in their daily lives. This has led some to question the value of democracy,” Mr. Bush said. “It is in our national interests … to help the people in democracies in our neighborhood succeed.”

Mr. Bush, during a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at the Ronald Reagan Building, said that ongoing poverty in Latin America, despite overall economic growth, is “a scandal” brought about by corrupt leadership.

“In too many places … a government official is seen as somebody who serves himself, or serves only the rich and the well-connected,” Mr. Bush said. “We’re working with our partners to change old patterns and ensure that government serves all its citizens.”

Mr. Bush, who leaves for Brazil Thursday and returns March 14, announced he is sending a U.S. Navy hospital ship — the USNS Comfort — to 13 South and Central American countries, to treat an expected 85,000 patients and perform an estimated 1,500 surgeries. Mr. Bush also will visit Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Uruguay.

In addition, the United States will spend $75 million over three years to teach English to young Latin Americans, and bring students to the United States on scholarships. The United States will also spend $385 million to increase homeownership and is working with Latin American banks to increase loans to small businesses.

Bush administration officials denied that the president’s weeklong trip has been prompted by concerns about anti-American leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, or by resentment that the United States has not paid enough attention to the region.

“[The president] has been involved and committed to Latin America throughout his presidency,” said National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who said Mr. Bush’s focus on the region “has not gotten the attention it deserves.”

But regional analysts said both Mr. Chavez and weak U.S. relations with the region are driving the president’s trip.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of Americas, an advocacy group for businesses with interests in Latin America, said “the specter of Chavez [is] overhanging the region right now,” and that “the standing of the United States in the region has decreased.”

Mr. Farnsworth, however, applauded Mr. Bush’s speech, which he said pushes back against Mr. Chavez’s populism in the right way.

Dan Restrepo, Latin America analyst at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, was not impressed.

“You can’t have a year of engagement every six or seven years and think it’s going to answer the mail,” Mr. Restrepo said.

Mr. Bush’s policies, Mr. Restrepo said, “aren’t particularly bold given the holes that we’ve dug over the last few years.”

Mr. Bush made no mention of his plans to encourage Brazil to increase ethanol production for alternative fuels, and made only passing mention of the need for immigration reform.

“I think that was a very important statement, because it shows that at least for this trip there really does seem to be an emphasis on social development in the hemisphere, and that’s something that is new and positive,” Mr. Farnsworth said.

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