Bush and Chavez Compete for Economic Influence

This week, President Bush and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez will be fighting for the attention of Latin Americans as they talk up their different visions for the future of the Latin American economy. Bush will push greater trade as the solution to Latin American poverty. Chavez continues his effort to become the new post-Castro socialist, populist leader.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush is starting a six-day tour of Latin America today in Brazil. When he was elected, the president vowed that our southern neighbors would be among his highest priorities. But the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq have taken far more attention. This trip is seen as an attempt to win that goodwill that has slipped away. But some wonder if it's not too late, especially since Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has emerged as a powerful anti-American voice.

Here's NPR's Adam Davidson.

ADAM DAVIDSON: President Bush couldn't have been clearer about why he's going to Latin America.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The trip really is to remind people that we care.

DAVIDSON: The president says the U.S. does great by Latin America: We send money, we have lots of helpful programs, but nobody notices.

President BUSH: I do worry about the fact that some say, well, the United States hasn't paid enough attention to us, or the United States really isn't anything more than, you know, worried about terrorism, when in fact the record has been a strong record.

DAVIDSON: The Council on Foreign Relations' Julia Sweig says Latin America feels ignored because, well, it has been ignored. She wrote "Friendly Fire," which is about the anti-American backlash in the region and around the world.

She says a fence-mending trip is great, but the president is not proposing any real changes.

Ms. JULIA SWEIG (Director of the Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations): No. The president is not actually changing how money is spent. We're not witnessing a full-blown overhaul of Washington's policy toward Latin America.

DAVIDSON: Lately, Sweig says, when the U.S. does pay attention to Latin America, it's to promote two things: trade and democracy.

Ms. SWEIG: The problem is when Washington today says trade and democracy, Latin Americans here oligarchy and imperialism. And he's, I think, trying to show that we're about more than that.

DAVIDSON: Specifically, Sweig says, Bush wants Latin Americans to know he gets it. They are struggling. Their economies aren't doing well. Bush wants to show that he sees the same problems his nemesis does, Hugo Chavez, because, Sweig says, Chavez has done a great job of telling Latin Americans that he alone sees all these economic problems clearly.

So is Chavez right? Does he understand the economics of Latin America better than the America (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWEIG: Sorry to laugh. You're not going to put that on that tape.

DAVIDSON: Oh, I'm definitely going to put that on.

In case it's not clear, Sweig laughed because in her view Chavez doesn't have any real economic solutions. What he has is money. Higher oil prices have given Venezuela a windfall, and Chavez is spreading that money around, spending all over the region, making colorful speeches, blaming the region's problems on the U.S. and President Bush. And while Chavez has been everywhere in Latin America, Bush has been nowhere.

So the Latin American streak has gone decidedly towards Chavez. But Sweig says the leadership in the elites are, for the most part, still on the side of the U.S.

Ms. SWEIG: What's that board game we grew up playing?

DAVIDSON: "Risk."

Ms. SWEIG: Yes. It sounds like we're playing a big game of "Risk." But if you look at the map, you know, we still have Mexico, we still have Central America, we have Columbia for the foreseeable future, if you want to put it in those terms.

DAVIDSON: So the trip might shore up relations with the countries we're already close to. But it's not enough to win back the people, says Sergio Aguayo, an international relations professor at the College of Mexico.

Professor SERGIO AGUAYO (International Relations, College of Mexico): It looks like photo opportunity trip. You cannot heal in one week the consequence of one decade of indifference. I mean it is not possible in love affairs and in state affairs.

DAVIDSON: Aguayo says no matter how well this trip goes, next week President Bush will be back in Washington. And it's hard to imagine that anytime soon Latin America will get as much attention as places like Iraq, China, and North Korea.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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