WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush, facing criticism he has ignored Latin America, said Monday the region's grinding poverty is a scandal that has caused some to question the value of democracy. He said the United States will spend tens of millions of dollars to improve education, housing and health care across the region.
``The United States of America is committed to helping people rise out of poverty,'' the president said.
Many children in Latin America do not finish grade school and many mothers never see a doctor, Bush said in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building to about 400 invited guests, most of them members of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
``In an age of growing prosperity and abundance, this is a scandal and it is a challenge,'' Bush said.
The speech came three days before the president leaves on a weeklong trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush's efforts in Latin America have been overshadowed by the global war on terror, the fight against illegal drug trafficking and trade issues.
``It's something we have not done well enough, getting out the full scope of the president's message,'' Hadley said at a briefing before the president's address.
Since taking office, Bush has doubled U.S. foreign assistance to Latin America to about $1.6 billion a year. The money includes development assistance, military assistance and counter-narcotic assistance. Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. aide outside the Middle East and Afghanistan, with most of the money earmarked for anti-drug efforts.
Bush announced a series of steps to help the region:
_A Navy medical ship, the Comfort, will make port calls in Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. Its staff will treat 85,000 patients and conduct up to 1,500 surgeries. Other military medical teams will provide medical care through 62 medical readiness training exercises in 14 countries.
_A health care professional training center will be established in Panama to serve all of Central America, training students to be nurses, technicians and health care workers.
_The United States will commit $75 million over three years to help thousands of young people improve their English and study in the United States. Over the past three years, the United States has provided $150 million on education programs throughout the region.
_A program to make housing more affordable will be expanded with an additional $385 million. The United States already has provided more than $100 million through the Overseas Private Investment Corp. to help underwrite mortgages to working families in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and the countries of Central America.
Later this year, the administration will convene a White House conference on the Western Hemisphere, bringing together representatives from the private sector, non-governmental organizations, faith-based groups and volunteer associations, to explore more effective ways to deliver aid.
Peter DeShazo, who oversaw Western Hemisphere affairs for the State Department until last year, said Bush's trip is intended to offset ``the widespread perception that the U.S. has shown little attention'' to the region.
DeShazo, speaking at a briefing of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, said Bush's visit ``underscores that the administration is willing to work with democratic governments'' whether they are on the left, like Brazil's Lula da Silva or on the right, like Mexico's Felipe Calderon.
DeShazo currently is CSIS' Americas program director.