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Bush signals disdain for Venezuela's Chavez, but co-opts populism

March 10th, 2007 11:45 pm by Associated Press



MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - President Bush claimed progress on trade with Uruguay's president on Saturday, courting another leftist leader on his Latin American tour. "We care about the human condition," Bush said, trying to co-opt the populism of one influential leftist rival he won't meet: Venezuela's firebrand, Hugo Chavez.


In a part of the world where the U.S. invasion of Iraq is particularly unpopular, Bush is not talking much about the global war on terror. And while he won't mention Chavez by name, his soft-sell pitch clearly is intended to counter the Venezuelan leader's rising stature and rants that blame Latin America's poverty on U.S.-style capitalism.


"I would call our diplomacy quiet and effective diplomacy - diplomacy all aimed at helping people, aimed at elevating the human condition, aimed at expressing the great compassion of the American people," Bush said at a joint news conference with Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez. As he has on other stops, he mentions increases in U.S. aid programs during his presidency.


The two met at the Uruguayan presidential retreat in Anchorena Park, a riverside ranch and national park about 120 miles west of here. Bush traveled by helicopter.


The Bush administration is trying to strike a freer-trade deal with Uruguay. But these efforts are complicated by the country's membership in a rival South American trading bloc.


Uruguay, a tiny coastal nation overshadowed by neighboring Brazil and Argentina, wants to sell more beef and textiles to the United States, its biggest trading partner.


The two discussed U.S. restrictions on Uruguayan imports. Vazquez also said he wanted to expand scientific, technical and cultural exchanges - all to establish "a better standard of living for our people."


Both agreed to talk more.


Said Vazquez, "We have created a plan starting with this meeting" in which trade and agriculture experts from both countries will meet to iron out differences.


Bush said the United States is "fully prepared to reduce agricultural subsidies" but first wants to make sure "there is market access for our products."


Vazquez also pressed for a more liberal immigration policy in the United States. Bush said he would work for a "compassionate and rational immigration law" that recognizes the United States cannot grant automatic citizenship to undocumented immigrants or "kick people out."


Bush reported talking with the president about the potential of ethanol as an alternate fuel. He praised Vazquez's efforts to improve his country's economy, which is growing at an estimated rate of 7 percent.


The day before, Bush struck a deal on ethanol promotion with Brazil's left-wing leader, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva.


Bush is seeking to shore up relations with democratically elected leaders of both the left and the right in Latin America. He took in a traditional barbecue known as an asado with Vazquez. The leaders also went for about a 25-minute boat ride on the Plate River. Earlier, Bush extended to Silva a rare invitation to visit the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.


The president and first lady Laura Bush stopped for dinner at a restaurant in the old part of the city situated on a quaint plaza. "I strongly recommend that you come and have dinner," Bush said, standing outside the establishment with two of its employees. Area residents stood in the plaza waiting to get a glimpse of the president. When he emerged, one bystander shouted an obscenity.


He heads next for more conservative country, visiting Colombia on Sunday, Guatemala on Monday and Mexico on Tuesday and Wednesday. All are now headed by right-wing politicians countering the region's recent trend toward leftists.


Bush has been followed by protests.


Police put down violent demonstrations in Colombia, and in Guatemala, Indian priests plan to purify an archaeological site after Bush visits. In Sao Paulo on Thursday, riot police fired tear gas and clubbed some protesters after some 6,000 people held a largely peaceful march.


On Friday night, Chavez led a two-hour anti-Bush rally attended by nearly 20,000 people at a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, just across the river from where Bush met with Vazquez on Saturday. Chavez called Bush a "political cadaver" and said he was on his way to becoming "cosmic dust." Shouts of "gringo go home!" erupted in the stands. Shadowing Bush, Chavez plans to be in Bolivia while the American leader is in nearby Colombia. And when Bush is in Guatemala, Chavez will be not far away in Haiti. Bush has steadfastly ignored Chavez. But it's becoming more difficult as the outspoken Venezuelan steps up his personal attacks. For the second day, Bush declined a direct answer when a reporter raised the issue of why he doesn't mention Chavez by name. "I've come to South America and Central America to advance a positive, constructive diplomacy that is being conducted by my government on behalf of the American people," Bush said. Asked about his differences with Vazquez, given his left-wing background, Bush said: "The temptation is to try to get people to talk about their differences. I want to talk about our commonalities." Vazquez, 67, a physician and longtime member of the Socialist Party, took office in March 2005 after running as head of a coalition that included former guerrillas. He quickly re-established relations with Cuba. Still, he has combined socialist ideas with some projects that embrace free-market economies. Dan Fisk, a White House adviser on Western Hemisphere affairs, said that Vazquez, like Brazil's Silva, "starts at a different end of the political spectrum" from Bush. Yet they both share with the U.S. president "a commitment to democracy and free markets," Fisk said. As they wound down their visit to Uruguay, the Bushes went to a reception for government and business leaders at the U.S. ambassador's residence before having dinner at the restaurant.

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