Bush And Chavez: A Battle For Influence In Latin America

Friday, March 9th 2007, 5:55 pm
By: News On 6

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ It's in-your-face diplomacy as Presidents Bush and Hugo Chavez carry out dueling tours in South America. The more the American leader talks compassion, the more his Venezuelan antagonist responds with taunts like ``gringo go home'' and ``if he says yes, we say, no.''

Bush said Friday in Brazil that ``we care about our neighborhood a lot.'' But he hasn't gone this far south of the U.S. border for quite some time, allowing Chavez to establish a dominant presence in a region where many people have long felt either neglected or interfered with by Washington.

And Chavez is refusing to cede any ground. While Bush moved on to Uruguay's capital Friday night, staying inside a high-security bubble that keeps protesters at a safe distance, Chavez relished the opportunity to fill a Buenos Aires soccer stadium with leftist supporters after getting another public display of affection from his Argentine ally, President Nestor Kirchner.

In the Bush vs. Chavez debate, these ideological adversaries vie for regional influence. On the right, Bush says Washington is firmly committed to democracy and the poverty-fighting benefits it inspires. On the left, Chavez says the United States is determined to keep the region subservient to its own selfish needs.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva seemed to take care to avoid favoring either side as he and Bush faced the media Friday. While Bush celebrated an ethanol partnership with his new ``biofuels buddy,'' Silva said more carefully that Brazil-U.S. relations will strengthen ``to the extent that we respect each other.''

Chavez also moved to upstage Bush on the environmental front, signing deals with Kirchner to promote the use of cleaner natural gas as Brazilian environmentalists claimed that Bush's ethanol plan could increase Amazon deforestation.

While Chavez publicly calls Bush the ``Devil'' and the ``King of Lies,'' Bush has sought to ignore him, and studiously avoids mentioning Chavez by name.

Chavez, a pal of Cuban communist Fidel Castro, has spent years crisscrossing Latin America to slap backs, sign agreements and drop hefty government checks drawn from Venezuela's vast oil wealth. And he's only ratched that up during the Bush trip.

When Bush promised to send a military ship to regional ports to treat 85,000 poor Latin Americans, Chavez could point out that 30,000 Cuban doctors, bankrolled in part by Venezuela, are not only treating but living among Latin America's poor. And when Bush promised more than $1 million for Bolivian flood victims, Chavez quickly upped the ante to $15 million.

Also, in a region where democracies have only recently vanquished military dictatorships supported by previous U.S. governments, Chavez tries to capitalize on the common perceptions that U.S. has darker intentions than friendship and trade.

During Bush's six hour stop in Colombia, for instance, he'll get a glimpse of a U.S. Embassy scholarship program for beleaguered miniority descendants of African slaves. But human rights groups have launched the allegation that the United States did little to stop Colombian paramilitaries from forcing thousands of these Afro-Colombians to flee their homes.

All told, Bush aides say U.S. foreign assistance to Latin America totals about $1.6 billion annually. But Chavez has pledged at least $5.4 billion to 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries since 2005.

While Bush moves on to Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, Chavez will travel to Bolivia to check on the flood victims and then Haiti on Monday, where Venezuela's state-run development bank has pledged $20 million for health care, education, and housing.

``Given the 'wealth spreading' by Chavez in the region, he remains tolerable if not popular,'' said Riordan Roett, head of Western Hemisphere Studies at Johns Hopkins University. ``It's very unlikely the White House will be able to build an anti-Chavez coalition on this presidential trip.''