WASHINGTON — With one eye on Hugo Chávez, President Bush heads off Thursday on a five-country tour of Latin America designed to display a US leadership capable of working with the region's democratic leftists – and of showing as much interest in social issues as it has in open markets.
Even as the Venezuelan president and would-be heir to Fidel Castro's mantle continues to peddle his own vision for the region with the help of his country's vast oil wealth, Mr. Bush will talk biofuels with Brazil's center-left president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He'll venture as far south as Uruguay, to meet with another Latin leftist president, Tabaré Vásquez, before stopping in Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico.
All along the way, Bush will acknowledge the regionwide disappointment in a decade and a half of economic and political reforms by emphasizing new initiatives. They'll address poverty and lagging development – two hemispheric priorities that lost out to a US focus on trade and security.
Yet with America's image in the region at an all-time low, Bush widely seen as a lame-duck president bogged down by Iraq, and his own budget for 2008 proposing significant cuts in key social-assistance programs, many analysts wonder if the trip and new focus on the hemisphere isn't too little, too late.
"This trip marks a radical shift in the discourse of US policy, a change in the way the US talks about Latin America," says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Free trade and counterterrorism "have been the only two items on the agenda since 9/11," she says, "but now we see recognition of other issues at play in the region than the ones the administration has focused on."
The problem for Bush, she says, is that expectations of the US and America's image are both so low that the new emphasis is "likely to be met with widespread skepticism in the region."
Adds Sidney Weintraub, a Latin America expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington: "After six-plus years of neglect, there's little the Latin Americans expect of him anymore."
This is not the way it was supposed to be. Bush came into the White House saying that as president he would "look south, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency." This trip, an especially long one for Bush, is designed to demonstrate that he has been true to his original commitment, White House officials say.
Bush will note the expansion of free-trade agreements with the US, as well as US support for democracy's expansion in the region. But he will also unveil the new emphasis on social concerns.
In conjunction with Bush's trip, the White House issued a fact sheet on "advancing the cause of social justice in the Western Hemisphere," which recognizes that "despite advances" toward freedom and stability in fiscal policies, "tens of millions" in the hemisphere "remain stuck in poverty."
The sheet lists new initiatives Bush will announce on his trip, from advancing healthcare training in Central America to extending more loans to small businesses. Bush also plans to send a Navy medical ship, the Comfort, to ports throughout the region this summer.
It is impossible to understand this shift in emphasis without taking into account the rise of Mr. Chávez as a regional voice for the poor and downtrodden, analysts say. "Chávez colors everything the US does and thinks about Latin America now," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "This is a response to what Chávez says about the US."
US officials deny that the trip includes any effort to beat Chávez at his own game. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said this week the trip has nothing to do with Chávez, but is more an effort to highlight a Bush priority that has been "obscured" and has "not been reported" because of the war on terror.
But public comments from administration officials suggest otherwise. Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, spoke of competing visions for the region in congressional testimony last week.
And in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this week, Bush concluded by referring to a statue near the White House of Simón Bolívar, the father of South American liberty who is the namesake of Chávez's anti-imperialist "Bolivarian revolution." Bush equated Bolívar to George Washington, saying, "It is our mission to complete the revolution they began on our two continents."
Such comments, as well as the trip's general theme, suggest a US president "playing catch-up" with the social priorities the Venezuelan leader has been able to tap into, says Russell Crandall, a Latin America expert and visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
But Mr. Crandall says Bush's trip is also not likely to please Chávez, whom he says "would have preferred to see the democratic left countries telling Bush to get lost."
Noting that Bush will barely return to Washington before he greets Brazil's President Lula at Camp David at the end of the month, Mr. Hakim says the trip generally is "a statement on the left-right split in Latin America. It says we can get along just as well with a leftist president" who is upholding the hemisphere's democratic values.
As Mr. Hadley said this week of Bush's choice to visit Uruguay: "It is not a political complexion particularly like the current administration in Washington, but President Vásquez has led his country [in] making right choices."