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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January, 2004, 04:26 GMT
Bush's Americas challenge
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC correspondent in Monterrey, Mexico

On Monday morning, US President George W Bush steps aboard Airforce One for the short hop across the border from his Texas ranch to the northern Mexican city of Monterrey.

He is coming here to attend the Special Summit of the Americas. A couple of days in this sprawling, industrial city, in the company of 33 heads of state from across the continent.

Venue of the Americas summit in Monterrey, Mexico
Summiteers hope to generate more than just window dressing
The idea is to try to build a consensus, to find a way to solve the deepening poverty and rising inequality that afflicts half of the entire Latin American population.

But consensus may be hard to find.

Latin America is not the amenable place it once was for President Bush.

The region has changed since he declared it his main foreign policy priority in the year 2000, shortly before the 11 September attacks took his attention elsewhere.

Key regional powers including Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela have left-wing governments.

Other countries that the president might have thought he could depend upon, such as Mexico and Chile, opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Odd man out

In what may be a taste of things to come, one disagreement has emerged in the hours before the summit begins

President Bush remains convinced that free trade is what this part of the world needs, and wants the summit to focus on that issue, together with corruption and the war on terror.

But a group, led by Brazil and Venezuela, are insisting that the heads of state talk about inequality ands social issue - not free markets.

Another likely source of disagreement centres on the only Americas leader who will not be coming to Monterrey: Cuba's Fidel Castro.

The long-time ideological foe of the US is not invited to these summits as Cuba has been suspended from the Organization of American States since 1962.

American officials chose last week to express alarm at what they perceive to be the cosy relationship Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Argentina's Nestor Kirchner enjoy with Mr Castro.

Not all gloom

Both Presidents Chavez and Kirchner reacted with fury at what they saw as a crude attempt to interfere with their foreign policy decisions. They say they will be raising the issue at the summit.

Mr Kirchner went as far as to say that he predicted he would win "by a knockout" following his meeting with Mr Bush.

But the summit will not all be about differences.

President Bush does have something to offer his otherwise sceptical neighbours.

He has just announced sweeping plans to overhaul US immigration laws - in a move that will allow thousands of mostly Mexican illegal immigrants to gain legal status as workers in the United States.

It is a development that has been welcomed by the summit's host, Mexican President Vicente Fox.

He has been lobbying for such a change in US law for three years.

If the US Congress converts the proposal into law, that will be seen as a major political victory for Mr Fox.

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