President Bush begins a trip Thursday to Latin America, a region he has been accused of ignoring. And his mission will be a difficult one. He's trying to show he cares about the region's poor and disenfranchised — something his rival in the region, Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez, has been doing for years now.
The president has plenty of concrete items on his agenda for the trip. In Brazil, he will be talking about ethanol production from sugar cane and global trade talks. The war on drugs is likely to take center stage in Colombia. There are immigration matters to talk about in Mexico and Guatemala, and a free-trade agreement to discuss with Uruguay.
But there may be just one overarching goal.
"The objective of this trip is basically to assert itself in the hemisphere at a time when there is a need for the U.S. to present another option to that of what President Chavez is presenting in the hemisphere," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And it is one of public diplomacy, to portray a softer gentler side to the Bush administration."
President Bush will do that — aides say — by highlighting some of the U.S.-funded programs in the region, taking particular note of education and health care.
But there, too, the comparisons with Chavez are apparent. While Chavez sends Cuban doctors and teachers around the region — and uses his oil wealth to gain friends — President Bush told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this week that he'll be sending a Navy medical ship, the Comfort, to the region in June.
"The Comfort will make port calls in Belize and Guatemala and Panama and Nicaragua and El Salvador and Peru and Ecuador and Colombia, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago, Guiana and Suriname," the president told the chamber. "It's goin' to be busy."
The ship is expected to treat 85,000 patients.
There was another point in that speech when Mr. Bush directly challenged President Chavez and his populist Bolivarian revolution. Mr. Bush made it clear that he thinks Simon Bolivar belongs to — as he put it — "all who love liberty."
"You know, not far from the White House is a statue of the great liberator, Simon Bolivar," Bush said. "He's often compared to George Washington. Jorge W."
While his talking points are clearly aimed at countering Chavez's influence in Latin America, his aides are trying to downplay this.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon says the U.S. has a positive agenda in the region.
"This isn't a competition," Shannon said. "What we are attempting to do with our assistance and aid is not buy favor or create a dependent relationship, which is what President Chavez wants to do. What we are trying to do is build capacity... so that we can have partners that are strong and independent, but democratic."
But when Shannon was at a House hearing last week, he got an earful from members of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Rep. Gregory Meeks — a Democrat from New York — complained that the administration's latest budget request for aid to the region is smaller than last year's.
"The president's trip coincides with the release of his 2008 budget, which slashes desperately needed development funds and anti-drug funds," Meeks said. "The president will essentially gallivant on a five-country tour with empty hands, but lots of rhetoric: mostly about why Chavez is bad, Cuba needs to change, and democracy is the answer for progress. While our rhetoric goes up, our aid goes down."
Shannon told lawmakers that U.S. aid has trended upward during the Bush administration's time in office.
Other lawmakers — including Rep. Ron Klein, a Democrat from Florida, warned that the Bush administration has been ignoring the region at its peril — that it's not just Chavez making inroads, but Iran as well.
"I think it's something that we need to take very, very seriously," Klein said. "We cannot be neutral. We cannot be passive. We need to be aggressive."
Shannon said that the president's trip will be an opportunity to engage.