President Bush, facing criticism he has ignored Latin America, said Monday the region's grinding poverty is a scandal that has caused some to question the value of democracy. He said the United States will spend tens of millions of dollars to improve education, housing and health care across the region.
"The United States of America is committed to helping people rise out of poverty," the president said.
Many children in Latin America do not finish grade school and many mothers never see a doctor, Bush said in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building to about 400 invited guests, most of them members of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"In an age of growing prosperity and abundance, this is a scandal and it is a challenge," Bush said.
The speech came three days before the president leaves on a weeklong trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush's efforts in Latin America have been overshadowed by the global war on terror, the fight against illegal drug trafficking and trade issues.
"It's something we have not done well enough, getting out the full scope of the president's message," Hadley said at a briefing before the president's address.
A series of steps announced
Since taking office, Bush has doubled U.S. foreign assistance to Latin America to about $1.6 billion a year. The money includes development assistance, military assistance and counter-narcotic assistance. Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. aide outside the Middle East and Afghanistan, with most of the money earmarked for anti-drug efforts.
Bush announced a series of steps to help the region:
--A Navy medical ship, the Comfort, will make port calls in Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. Its staff will treat 85,000 patients and conduct up to 1,500 surgeries. Other military medical teams will provide medical care through 62 medical readiness training exercises in 14 countries.
--A health care professional training center will be established in Panama to serve all of Central America, training students to be nurses, technicians and health care workers.
--The United States will commit $75 million over three years to help thousands of young people improve their English and study in the United States. Over the past three years, the United States has provided $150 million on education programs throughout the region.
--A program to make housing more affordable will be expanded with an additional $385 million. The United States already has provided more than $100 million through the Overseas Private Investment Corp. to help underwrite mortgages to working families in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and the countries of Central America.
Later this year, the administration will convene a White House conference on the Western Hemisphere, bringing together representatives from the private sector, non-governmental organizations, faith-based groups and volunteer associations, to explore more effective ways to deliver aid.
Peter DeShazo, who oversaw Western Hemisphere affairs for the State Department until last year, said Bush's trip is intended to offset "the widespread perception that the U.S. has shown little attention" to the region.
DeShazo, speaking at a briefing of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, said Bush's visit "underscores that the administration is willing to work with democratic governments" whether they are on the left, like Brazil's Lula da Silva or on the right, like Mexico's Felipe Calderon.
DeShazo currently is CSIS' Americas program director.
Foreign travel and outgoing presidents
Second-term presidents often find comfort in foreign policy and overseas travel as they lose clout at home. A statesman-abroad strategy, however, may not work particularly well for President Bush.
Bush is unpopular throughout the globe, even in this country's backyard, and will find it hard to escape the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan no matter where he goes.
He will promote closer trade ties, more anti-drug trafficking cooperation and an increased emphasis on biofuels and other alternate energy sources.
Long-term U.S. interests 'deeply threatened'
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns calls 2007 "a year of engagement" with Latin America. But Bush goes with a weak hand.
The Democratic takeover of Congress and rising protectionist sentiment threaten the free-trade agreements Bush wants. His power, granted by Congress, to negotiate such deals in an expedited way expires on July 1. Renewal is dubious.
Bush's hosts are mindful of a president hobbled at home by low approval by ratings and an opposition-led Congress, and with little say in his own party's choice of a 2008 presidential candidate to succeed him.
Increasingly, Bush is drawing taunts from leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez, who aligns himself with Cuba's Fidel Castro, says Bush's trip is an attempt to stir up trouble between Venezuela and its neighbors.
Chavez calls Bush "the little gentleman from the North, the king of invaders, the king of liars."
Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard professor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, said Latin America "desperately needs attention from the United States. We've just ignored it too much for too long. And especially now, where there is this big shift to the left going on," he said.
"The influence of Chavez in Latin America is cancerous. It's a very dangerous moment. And long-term U.S. interests could be deeply threatened," Rogoff said.
Following presidential precedent
As U.S. presidents serve deep into their terms, they have found it harder to earn domestic victories in Congress and often throw themselves into foreign policy. This is especially true for presidents in their second terms, as Bush is now.
President Clinton, for example, spent his last days in office trying to deliver a peace deal in the Middle East after surviving an impeachment battle.
President Nixon traveled to Moscow to sign major arms-control agreements months before the Watergate scandal forced his resignation.
President Eisenhower, after Democrats swept the 1958 congressional elections, found the only leverage he had at home was to veto bills. He preferred touring the world instead.
Bush expectations lower
Eisenhower was greeted as a hero and Clinton drew huge crowds and affection overseas. Bush, by comparison, is widely disliked.
"The president is going to a part of the world that hasn't been terribly controversial and where he hopes to leave some positive legacy," said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America. The nonprofit organization promotes civil rights and democracy.
"I think it's great that he's going. But the question is, other than on the rhetorical level, is he going to accomplish anything?"
Thomas Shannon, who heads the State Department's Latin America bureau, denies that the administration has failed to pay enough attention to Latin America.
"I've looked at charts back to 1982, and this administration is spending more money than any administration has spent over several decades" in the region, he said.
Still, there is no doubt that Bush's own expectations are lower.
9/11 changed things
During his 2000 campaign, he said Latin America would be a "fundamental commitment of my presidency."
Soon after taking office, he stood with other leaders at a "Summit of the Americas" in Quebec City, Canada, and advocated a free-trade zone ranging from Alaska to Chile's Cape Horn.
The Sept. 11 attacks reordered his priorities.
"Given the circumstances with the attention paid in the Middle East, Latin America has gotten even less attention than it usually does," said Peter DeShazo, deputy secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs until 2004. He now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Hopes for a hemisphere-wide trade pact are dashed. Brazil, South America's biggest economy, helped form a rival trade bloc with Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and, more recently, Venezuela.
Bush instead has sought country-by-country trade deals. Three are pending - with Peru, Colombia and Panama. A free trade deal is being negotiated with Uruguay, whose president, Tabare Vazquez, has expressed unhappiness with the rival bloc.
Bush won approval of a Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005 by only a single vote in the Senate - and Congress was then in Republican hands. There has been a U.S.-Canada-Mexico free trade pact since the early 1990s.
Bush is expected to focus on free trade and efforts to combat drug trafficking in Colombia, the largest recipient of U.S. aid besides the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Throughout the trip, and especially in Brazil, Bush will promote biofuels and energy self-reliance. In Mexico, Bush will meet with the new president, conservative Felipe Calderon. Issues include drugs, migration and unresolved trade disputes over trucking rights and agricultural products.