Thousands of mainly leftist Uruguayans are preparing to demonstrate against President Bush's visit to the South American country, the second stop in a five-nation tour of Latin America. Bilateral trade and the fight against poverty are expected to take center stage in Mr. Bush's talks Saturday with his Uruguayan counterpart, Tabare Vazquez, in the picturesque city of Colonia. But, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports from the Uruguayan capital, the Bush visit has prompted a fierce debate in Uruguay over the U.S. role on the world stage.
Uruguay's center-left president walked a fine line ahead of President Bush's visit, urging expanded trade with the United States while stressing his opposition to what he has called U.S. "imperialism."
A Vazquez ally in the legislature, Senator Eduardo Rios, has a similar message.
"We are expecting a visit that expands trade, and we hope that President Bush does not come with any of the imperialist designs that he has imposed elsewhere [in the world]," he said.
Uruguay hopes to sell more beef, textiles and other products to the United States, its biggest commercial partner for two of the last three years. The two countries have a framework agreement to expand trade, and President Bush has stated his desire for a bilateral free trade accord. But some Uruguayans believe their country would be better served by economic unification within Latin America, and see the Bush administration's push for one-on-one trade deals as an attempt to undermine their region's integration.
Whatever their positions on trade matters, many Uruguayans seem indisposed to listen to Mr. Bush, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq serving as a major irritant. Most, like public administrator Paty Morales, have nothing positive to say about the U.S. president.
"I do not like what he [Bush] does: invading a country that he has nothing to do with, all for oil," he said.
Of more than a dozen people randomly interviewed on the streets of Montevideo, only one, Celia Figueroa, said she is pleased to have Mr. Bush in her country.
"I am delighted and will welcome him [Bush] with great pleasure. I have no reason to do otherwise. I am completely opposed to the [negative] things that are being said [about President Bush] here. It makes no sense to treat the president of the most important country in the world in that fashion," he said.
Some recall U.S. support for Uruguay's former military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, when hundreds of leftist sympathizers disappeared and many more, like Irma Leites, were jailed as political prisoners. A human rights activist today, Leites terms President Bush's visit an insult and a disgrace.
"Of course, we completely reject his presence, and we totally reject the Uruguayan government for receiving him," she said.
Others have a very different view.
Former President Luis Alberto Lacalle, who says he has fond memories of President Bush's father, recalls an emergency loan the current President Bush granted Uruguay when the country was on the verge of financial collapse.
"During the 2002 crisis, $1.5 billion from the government of the United States prevented Uruguay from defaulting. The banks did not close. And in life you have to show gratitude. That does not mean we have to agree with everything the United States says. But we have to remember that when we were in need, a country and a government, that of George Bush, came to our aid," he said.
U.S. officials in Uruguay reject the widely-held notion that Washington has ignored Latin America in recent years to focus on other parts of the world. But they acknowledge that the perception exists, and that the U.S. image in the region could stand to be improved. Promoting trade is one way to do that, according to U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Frank Baxter.
"Image is important, sure, but the best way to improve your image is to do the right thing, I think we are doing the right thing in many, many areas [in Uruguay]. And trade is certainly one of the best ways of communicating. We are hoping to create jobs here and create jobs in the United States," he said.
Earlier this week, President Bush announced a boost in U.S. aid to Latin America focusing on health care, education and housing in the region.