Bush Steers His Horse South

Most summits of world leaders can be a yawn. Not next week's gathering of leaders from the Western Hemisphere, which will provide an opportunity for the United States to reaffirm a commitment to its backyard after more than two years of preoccupation with the war on terrorism.

Most of Latin America remains in economic crisis. Only Chile has a real per capita income today that's higher than it was 20 years ago. As a result, some countries are rebelling against the market-economy model pushed by Washington, putting the gains in democracy of the 1980s at risk.

And President Bush's you're-either-with-us-or-against-us attitude on Iraq has not helped relations, especially considering the common Latin perception of US "imperialism." Standing up to Uncle Sam has become popular again, with Mexico voting "no" on the Iraq war at the UN, and Brazil scuttling recent world and regional trade talks. The latest incident involves a flare-up over US accusations that Argentina is becoming too cozy with Cuba. Argentine President Nestor Kirchner has boasted he will "win by a knockout" in talks with Mr. Bush next week.

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Only 53 percent of Latin Americans hold a favorable view of the US, down from 67 percent in 2000, according to 17-country poll by Latinobarometro, a Chilean company.

In a significant first step to repair ties with Latin America, Bush announced an immigration reform plan this week that's mainly aimed at pleasing Mexico, the most important US partner to the south. Bush still needs to revive the close ties he started with Mexico early in his presidency, before Sept. 11, 2001, diverted his attention.

Of course, it's not as if Washington has been asleep all these months. In the absence of a hemispheric free trade zone, which Bush envisioned at the start of his term, the US has been active putting together regional trade deals - first with Chile, then with Central America. Andean nations are next.

When Bush meets with 33 colleagues in Monterrey, Mexico, on Monday and Tuesday, he will face old demands - debt relief, higher aid, and more open US markets. But he will also advocate ways Latin American governments can remove barriers to starting small and medium-sized businesses. At the least, such steps show a US concern about the region's poverty and that it might now be more fully engaged with its Latin neighbors.

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