MONTERREY, Mexico — Three months after taking office, a deferential President Bush made his debut on the world stage by embracing -- and charming -- Latin America.
"I grew up in a world where if you treat your neighbor well, it's a good start to developing a wholesome community," he told his 33 counterparts at the Summit of the Americas.
Three years later, Bush is deeply unpopular in much of the region. Latin Americans view him as a distant neighbor at best -- often at odds with them over security and trade policies, and aloof from their worst economic and political crises.
When he arrives in Monterrey today for his second Summit of the Americas, Bush will meet a Latin American leadership that has shifted to the left and grown increasingly assertive with Washington as people across the region lose faith in free markets.
In the eyes of his neighbors, Bush embodies both impulses of the northern colossus that, alternately through history, has bullied and ignored them. Except for confronting its leaders with a with-us-or-against-us attitude on Iraq, he has made Latin America, "at least in terms of U.S. attention, an Atlantis, a lost continent," said Jorge Castaneda, who was Mexico's foreign minister until a year ago.
The two-day summit here "is the second coming out of George Bush in Latin America, an opportunity for reengagement," said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum for hemisphere leaders. "Will he be pushing them to demonstrate their loyalty, support for the U.S.? Will he try to reconnect with the region, to show a commitment there?"
Although Latin America is not a global power center, the stakes are high enough.
A popular backlash is growing after a decade of U.S.-backed reforms that have sold off state enterprises and opened markets to foreign competition, benefiting corrupt officials and the wealthy but doing little for the 220 million people -- nearly half Latin America's population -- who are poor. The number of jobless has more than doubled in 10 years. In every country but Chile, per-capita income has shrunk.
Latin American leaders warn that the transformation of the 1980s, when military regimes long dominant in the region gave way to elected civilians, is at risk because people blame democracy for economic malaise. Violent popular uprisings and one military coup over the last five years have toppled elected leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru.
It was a sense that events were spinning out of control that prompted Canada to call for this week's extraordinary meeting. The Summit of the Americas was launched in 1994 as a forum to promote the hemisphere's most ambitious project: a free trade zone from Alaska to Argentina. The region's leaders met again in 1998 and 2001. The next summit was set for 2005, but concern arose that Argentina, the assigned host, was too crippled by its financial meltdown to pull it off.
Brazil, which has clashed with the Bush administration over terms of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas accord, moved to block formal discussion of the issue this week by refusing to attend the summit if trade were on the table.
Bush will come with an anti-poverty agenda that fits into the meeting's limited scope. He will urge the summit to set "practical goals that can rapidly improve the daily lives of people in the region," U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week.
The president's "tough love" message, U.S. officials say, is this: Latin America's problems are political, not economic, and there is little Washington can do if its neighbors fail to strengthen the rule of law and property rights, stop corruption, invest more in education and lift bureaucratic obstacles to starting small businesses. Democratic countries that progress in these areas, he is expected to emphasize, can compete for a share of $5 billion in Millennium Challenge Account grants under a U.S. aid program.
Bush's political advisors see a payoff at home. Coupled with his proposal last week to normalize the status of illegal immigrant workers in the United States, which would mainly benefit Mexicans, the president's election-year pitch to Latin America as a whole could play well with Latino voters.
It remains to be seen how the Bush message will play here.
Miguel Diaz, a South American specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the administration seems "more open-minded on what needs to be done" to stimulate the region's economy.
Bush's critics argue that the United States could help the region a lot more by reducing farm subsidies that inhibit Latin American exports. The broad perception that the U.S. leader is pursuing "cowboy diplomacy" in Iraq and elsewhere generates suspicion in the region about whatever he says.