Bush Leaves D.C. Troubles Behind for S. America

President Bush is beginning a five-day trip to Latin America on Thursday. The journey includes an appearance at Friday's opening session of the Summit of the Americas, an event that aims to create jobs and promote democracy throughout Latin America. Madeleine Brand speaks to NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea about the president's trip in light of his domestic political difficulties.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, we'll talk with the head of UNICEF about how children in Pakistan are faring after last month's devastating earthquake there.

But first, President Bush leaves today for a visit to South America. The trip includes a Summit of the Americas conference at the resort town of Mar del Plata in Argentina. The president will be pushing for a free-trade zone for the Western Hemisphere, but there's a lot of opposition in parts of South America, and big protests are expected throughout the president's tour. With us now to talk about the visit is NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

And, Don, what does the president hope to accomplish with this trip?

DON GONYEA reporting:

Well, you could say he's looking to get away from all the troubles he's been having in Washington, though look for those issues to follow him. He has not taken a question since the indictment last week of Lewis Libby, his and Vice President Cheney's top aide, who has since resigned and who was arraigned today. The president will certainly face questions about that whole investigation on this trip during a couple of scheduled news conferences.

Now as for the official purpose of the summit, though, the White House says it is a chance for democratically elected leaders to get together--three dozen of them, roughly, in all--and reaffirm a shared vision for the hemisphere, one the White House says is based on democracy and free markets and free trade as the best way to enhance prosperity and the livelihoods of people in the hemisphere. The president, as you mentioned, wants something called a Free Trade Area of the Americas, a big free-trade pact, but he also admitted this week that talks on that pact are really going nowhere. Still, he's pushing it.

BRAND: Now the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, will be in some of the meetings, but he's also one of the protesters, right?

GONYEA: Absolutely. Chavez's country, Venezuela, has the third-largest economy in South America. It's an important oil supplier to the United States. He is the head of a democratic country. But he is also a close ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro. And Chavez believes in a much more socialist approach to governance. He is a critic of President Bush and the kind of free trade the president espouses. He says it may be good for corporations, but it's not good for workers across Latin America. He's also accused the US of trying to overthrow his government, even of plotting to assassinate him. So it is very unusual that the president of the United States will be in the same room at a summit with such a strong, strong critic.

BRAND: And what about others, other Latin American leaders? Where does US prestige stand with them?

GONYEA: Well, Chavez is certainly the loudest, most public voice criticizing the US, but there is a new Zogby poll of opinion leaders in six Latin American countries that shows very low support for President Bush. Across the Americas, American prestige, you could say, is taking a beating. Now part of it is a feeling that the war in Iraq has simply distracted President Bush from important Latin American issues. Mexican President Vicente Fox, whom President Bush on his first trip overseas as president called the US' most important ally, has been frustrated with Mr. Bush because of immigration issues. There are again, as I said, doubts about the US approach to free trade. So there are real doubts about President Bush. He meets a skeptical public.

BRAND: And where does he go after the summit?

GONYEA: Well, he goes to the Brazilian capital city for talks about economic ties and about trade again. That's a one-day stop. Then on Monday he visits Panama before heading home back to Washington that day.

BRAND: NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea, thank you.

GONYEA: A pleasure.

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