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The World

Bush trip has a Chavez agenda

The president's visit to Latin America is a bid to counter the growing regional sway of the Venezuelan leader.

March 06, 2007|Maura Reynolds, Patrick J. McDonnell and Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush, eager to counter the growing influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, declared Monday that he was heading to Latin America this week as a social reformer committed to alleviating poverty and social injustice.

The emphasis on addressing inequality marks a shift for the president, who has been assailed for stressing free trade and democracy south of the border and ignoring the social ills that continue to stymie the region.

"For too long and in too many places, opportunity in Latin America has been determined by the accident of birth rather than by the application of talents and initiative," Bush said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Bush is set to leave Thursday on a weeklong hemispheric trek that is to include stops in Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Guatemala and Mexico.

Bush's itinerary doesn't include Venezuela, but the pugnacious Chavez, who has used his oil riches to take up the mantle of Fidel Castro and generations of Yanqui-bashers, looms large in a region Washington has historically considered its "backyard."

With no major trade deal or political breakthrough imminent, Bush in effect has signaled his intention to present a counter-version of Chavez's well-crafted image of a social crusader standing up to U.S. "imperialism" at every opportunity.

However, Bush, whose poll numbers are at least as bad in Latin America as at home, is likely to meet skepticism and protests as he tries to portray a kinder, gentler face of U.S. policy.

"Evidently the principal reason for Bush's trip to the region is to try and put back together the United States' network of alliances in Latin America, where Chavez's influence is stronger each day," said Atilio Boron, an Argentine political analyst.

A top Bush administration official rejected the widely held notion in Latin America that the president's longest trip to the region is aimed at checking the influence of Chavez.

"We want to remind people that there is another side to U.S. policy," said the senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While the Bush administration has been tied down in the Middle East, Chavez has helped redraw Latin America's political map, in large part by doling out billions of dollars' worth of oil subsidies for allied nations and re-energizing socialist strategies consigned to the scrap heap a decade ago. Critics call his influence overblown, but Chavez has befriended a new generation of populist and leftist leaders and inspired political allies from Panama City to Santiago, Chile.

Chavez has also reached out to U.S. archenemy Iran, embarked on a buying spree of Russian arms and cemented an oil deal with China, at a time when Chinese trade in the region is surging and Asia is seen as an alternative to U.S. markets.

Chavez's voluble followers have vowed to take to the streets during Bush's trip, just as tens of thousands applauded Chavez's tirades against "Mr. Danger" during the U.S. president's 2005 trip, in which a disappointed Bush failed to persuade South America's major economic powers to join a hemispheric trade zone.

Unlike most of the president's previous trips to the region, this one is not built around a large multinational conference. Instead, Bush will meet one-on-one with the leader of each nation and take time to visit cultural sites and engage long-marginalized minority and indigenous populations.

Bush's first stop, Brazil, holds significance on several fronts, beyond that nation's position as Latin America's largest and most populous nation, and the world's ninth-largest economy.

Washington and Brasilia are launching a biofuels partnership that could lessen the sway of Venezuela and its vast oil and gas reserves and heighten the regional standing of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Despite his left-wing roots as a labor leader, the Brazilian leader has embraced free-market policies and is viewed in the White House as a Bush ally who is a moderate alternative to Chavez.

The prospective U.S.-Brazilian biofuels pact, with possible accords on future markets and technology sharing, constitutes the White House's first major foray into the raging Latin American energy debate. It also signals a shift, or at least a detour, from Washington's dominant post-Cold War concerns: drug interdiction, free trade and immigration.

But despite the buzz about an "ethanol OPEC" composed of the two countries that produce about 70% of the world's ethanol, the administration faces a daunting task in countering Chavez's standing as a major supplier of crude oil in a world that still runs on petroleum.

Even temperate leftist regimes, such as those in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, have maintained cordial relations with Chavez while pursuing a more measured path.

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