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Bush Begins Week-Long Latin America Tour


President Bush has embarked on a week-long tour of Latin America. VOA White House correspondent Paula Wolfson sets the scene for the trip from his first stop, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

President Bush came to office with a vow to make Latin America a policy priority.

"Our hemisphere is not going to be an afterthought for this administration," he said. "One of the most important parts of our foreign policy will be to promote prosperity and peace and freedom throughout this hemisphere."

But everything changed on September 11, 2001, when terrorists struck the United States. Fighting terrorism soared to the top of the Bush administration agenda, along with promoting democracy in the Middle East. Latin America was overshadowed by news of war and bloodshed, and some to the south began to believe they were being ignored.

"Generally speaking, the United States is not viewed with the confidence it once was," said Peter Hakim, who heads a group called the Inter-American Dialogue, a private organization set up to foster hemispheric ties.

"I have not seen in the region, and I travel there quite a bit, as much anti-U.S. sentiment across the region and it is very pervasive," he added.

White House aides say President Bush is making this trip in an effort to persuade America's neighbors to the South that he does care about their plight.

At a recent Washington address, the president indicated the journey will highlight, if not a policy shift, at least a change in focus.

"The working poor of Latin America need change, and the United States of America is committed to that change," added Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush will spend a lot of his time visiting programs that help the poor and the disenfranchised. Instead of devoting most of his public comments to issues like free trade and counter-narcotics, he will use this trip to showcase his willingness to help the democracies of the region meet the basic needs of their people: education, health care and housing.

Cynthia Arnson is director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She says the Bush administration has realized that too many people in the region feel the move to democracy and free markets has done little if anything to improve their lives.

"It is a recognition at the highest levels of the U.S. government that there are other issues at play in the hemisphere than the ones the United States has traditionally focused on," she noted.

Arnson says the lack of progress has enabled a new political left to take hold in Latin America. And no one exemplifies that new left better than the anti-American president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.

"I think it is true that there is probably no issue that serves as a common denominator defining today's left in the region more than the desire to address the massive poverty and social injustice that exists in various degrees of severity throughout Latin America," she added.

The White House denies the president is going to Latin America to counter Hugo Chavez, and US officials say they expect little mention of the Venezuelan leader in Mr. Bush's public comments.

What they do expect is an emphasis on the positive, as President Bush stops at youth centers, visits farm cooperatives, and pays homage to the region's indigenous culture.

His travels will take him from Brazil to Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico for meetings with presidents from the political left to the right of center.

The aim may well be to show that Mr. Bush is willing to work with any hemispheric leader who believes in, what he calls, good governance. That amounts to a belief in democracy and free markets combined with a strong desire to make sure the benefits reach all members of society, not just a privileged few.

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