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Thousands protest Bush's Brazil visit

The security effort is massive as the president arrives for a Latin tour, intended in part to counter Hugo Chavez.

March 09, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — As President Bush flew here Thursday on Air Force One, thousands of protesters shouting "Out, Bush!" marched down this city's main drag, Avenida Paulista.

Hundreds of riot police flanked at least 6,000 demonstrators near the city's financial center, and the scent of tear gas hovered along the march route. At least three protesters and a news photographer were reported hurt as baton-wielding police and demonstrators clashed, but there was no immediate word on their condition. Authorities later said that 16 police officers suffered minor injuries.

"We don't want Bush here!" shouted Marcelo Prado, 19. "Tell him to go home!"

Bush arrived Thursday night to begin a five-country visit to Latin America designed to bolster U.S. standing in the region and counter the growing influence of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. National security advisor Stephen J. Hadley, on Air Force One, said, "The president is going to do what he's been doing for a long time: talk about a positive agenda."

The trip is Bush's longest to date in Latin America, a region critics say he has largely ignored as the White House has focused on Iraq and the Middle East.

In Brazil, Latin America's largest and most populous nation, Bush and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are expected to unveil a commercial partnership centering on ethanol, a plant-based gasoline substitute that Bush is championing as a future alternative to fossil fuels.

In the pre-arrival protest, many here hoisted banners likening Bush to Adolf Hitler and warning him to keep his "hands off" Venezuela, while decrying any U.S.-Brazilian biofuels pact as a plot by Washington to grab Brazilian resources.

"For Bush, this is a matter of getting cheaper fuel and getting out of the mess in the Middle East," said Cristiana Coimbra, 35, a professional translator who wore a sticker that depicted Bush with a swastika.

The march, which included representatives of environmental, student and labor groups, broke up before Bush's plane touched down.

Police were also deployed in force to clear the route Bush was to take from the airport to his hotel. Reports here indicated that as many as 4,000 officers were participating in one of the largest security operations in recent memory.

Anti-Bush rallies seem likely to follow the president throughout his trip. Protests were also reported Thursday in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and in Bogota, Colombia. About 200 masked students at National University in Bogota clashed with 300 anti-riot police, the Associated Press reported.

On his last visit to the region, in 2005, Bush did not witness the massive demonstrations criticizing his presence at a hemispheric economic summit in Argentina.

The president and First Lady Laura Bush have a busy agenda today, with plans to meet with Lula and several community representatives. Lula, standard-bearer of the leftist Workers' Party, has veered to the center since he was first elected in 2002 and is now regarded as a firm U.S. ally committed to orthodox economic policies.

The two leaders are scheduled to deliver a joint statement on biofuels technology at a facility of Petrobras, the state-run energy company.

No concrete pact on biofuels is expected during the visit, but a final deal may be hammered out during Lula's visit to Camp David this month. What it will involve remains unclear, but some have spoken of a joint arrangement to market ethanol elsewhere in Latin America.

The Brazilian government has called for the repeal of tariffs that have hindered imports of the fuel to the United States. But U.S. and Brazilian officials say the tariffs are unlikely to be eliminated.

Though the White House has denied trying to counter the oil-funded diplomacy of Chavez, Latin America experts almost uniformly see Bush's trip as an effort to neutralize the Venezuelan president, who has rushed to fill the void left by Washington's focus on the Middle East. Chavez has provided billions of dollars in cheap gasoline, medical care and other aid to allied nations, and has reached out to U.S. enemies in Iran and elsewhere.

But even some pro-U.S. commentators here have warned that the White House's strident anti-Chavez rhetoric is playing into the Venezuelan leader's hands, reminding people of unpopular U.S. interventions in Latin American countries, including Brazil. Many Brazilians think U.S. opposition to former President Joao Goulart contributed to his overthrow in a 1964 coup, ushering in more than two decades of harsh military rule.

"Bush is Chavez-ifying his visit, and that is bad for him," Roberto Abdenur, a former Brazilian ambassador to Washington, told the O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper. "He is playing to the agenda of Chavez."

Bush is scheduled to fly late today to neighboring Uruguay, where he will meet with President Tabare Vazquez, another leftist.

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