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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 March 2007, 18:30 GMT
US fights Latin America's suspicion
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

The White House and the US state department could have been handing out "I Love Latin America" badges this week.

Mr Bush smiling and waving as he leaves for Latin America, March 2007
President Bush is popping down to see the neighbours
Ahead of George W Bush's visit to the region, officials have been brandishing statistics that show that this president really cares.

For example: this is his eighth trip to Latin America.

Complex statistical charts show the US has steadily increased aid to the region.

But the truth is that Latin America has been way down a long list of foreign-policy priorities for the president.

This trip is almost an afterthought - an "Oh-I-must-pop-in-to-see-the-neighbours" moment.

The facts:

  • Latin America as a whole receives less aid from the US in one year than Egypt does on its own.

  • A large proportion of US aid to the western hemisphere goes to Haiti.

  • Much of Latin America feels ignored.

  • This will be the first time Bush has visited Uruguay and Guatemala.

The White House recognises the perception and so has called this a "year of engagement" in the region to counter the negative view.

Growing hostility

President Bush wants to deliver a positive message that will help "deepen democracies" and address social issues such as poverty and social exclusion.

Graffiti at the National University in Bogota, Colombia
Graffiti in Bogota, Colombia, calls Mr Bush a "terrorist of liberty"
While he will discuss a range of bilateral issues, promote the use of alternative fuels such as ethanol and talk of the need to counter poverty, the drugs trade and so on, the top issue that worries US diplomats is growing anti-Americanism in the region.

Washington feels it is being spurred by its public enemy number one in the region - Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela.

The United States is promoting ethanol in part to try to weaken Mr Chavez's diplomatic clout in the region - which is based largely on the country's oil reserves.

High oil prices have given President Chavez the ability to throw money around the region - he has bought $1.5bn (780m) worth of Argentine bonds and offered to underwrite coca production in Bolivia.

Hugo Chavez at a press conference in Feb 2007
The rise of Hugo Chavez has been troubling for the United States
President Bush himself sees ethanol as a way of weaning America off foreign oil - including from Venezuela, which is fifth biggest exporter of oil to the US.

He hopes other countries in the region will also work towards energy independence, boosting their own economies as a result.

The US wants to encourage this - but is not prepared to scrap a tariff of 54 cents a gallon on any Brazilian ethanol imported into the country.

'Contrast, not competition'

Not that the US wants this to be a "stop Chavez" visit.

US diplomats have been restrained in their rhetoric when responding to the virulent attacks from President Chavez.

The US says it is not in competition with him, however keen Washington may be to contrast the two countries' approaches.

Diplomats say that unlike Mr Chavez they are not "buying favours" - they say they are more interested in developing strong democracies.

Ultimately, expectations for the visit are low in Washington.

President Bush has yet to get Congress to ratify free trade agreements with Panama, Peru and Colombia.

So in Latin America, this visit is unlikely to change the perception that the Bush administration has ignored the hemisphere - no matter how many statistical charts the White House produces to demonstrate that is not true.




SEE ALSO
Bush visit: US and Latin American views
08 Mar 07 |  Have Your Say
Bush announces Latin America aid
05 Mar 07 |  Americas



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