Bush says U.S. isn’t ignoring Latin America’s problems

SAO PAULO, Brazil – President Bush on Friday denied charges that the United States under his leadership has ignored Latin America’s poverty and problems.

”That may be what people say but it’s certainly not what the facts bear out,” Bush said. ”We care about our neighborhood a lot.”

Bush’s eighth trip to the region was widely viewed locally as a counter to efforts by the president’s nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to use his vast oil wealth to court allies. After Brazil, Bush goes to Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

But, asked about this, Bush refused to even use Chavez’ name.

”I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives,” he said. ”My trip is to explain as clearly as I can that our nation is generous and compassionate.”

Bush sought to breathe some life into collapsed talks for a vast global free trade agreement. Brazil helped dash hopes for a hemisphere-wide trade pact by forming a rival trade bloc with Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and, more recently, Venezuela.

But Bush and his host, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, made no secret of the friction between them in the global talks.

Silva said Brazil wants the United States to reduce it subsidies to American farmers, while Washington wants Brazil to open its markets to U.S. companies for industrial products and services.

Silva did not minimize the difficultly of reaching agreement saying it is ”not a simple thing to do.”

For his part, Bush said ”I’m not the least bit discouraged by past failures, nor am I overly optimistic because we’ve had a lot of successes in trade agreements.”

The Brazilian president had hoped to persuade Bush to repeal or scale back the 54-cent per gallon U.S. tariff on sugar-based Brazilian ethanol.

”Brazil hopes the ethanol market will be benefited by free trade, free of protectionisms,” Silva said at a joint news conference that followed their meetings.

Bush was unmoved.

”It’s not going to happen,” he tersely told his questioner. ”The law doesn’t end until 2009.”

Afterward, Bush visited a community center with first lady Laura Bush. They chatted with teens in a computer lab, where a young man used a click of a mouse to launch a tutorial on percussion instruments.

Moved by the music, a handful of girls jumped out of their chairs and danced for the president. The center provides meals and education to poor children, and Bush went there to draw attention to people in poverty finding a better way of life.

The highlight of Bush’s stay in Brazil was the signing of a new ethanol agreement between the two countries, heralded by both leaders as a way to boost alternative fuels production and use across the Americas.

Earlier in the day, at a mega fuel depot for tanker trucks, Bush and Silva said increasing the use of alternative fuel will lead to more jobs, a cleaner environment and greater independence from the whims of the oil market.

”We see the bright and real potential for our citizens being able to use alternative sources of energy that will promote the common good,” Bush said.

Sporting a white hard hat, the president had fingered sunflower seeds and stalks of sugar cane and sniffed beakers of clear ethanol and yellowish biodiesel. For decades, Brazil has been making ethanol with sugar cane and nearly eight in 10 new cars there already run on the fuel.

Biodiesel is a newer endeavor, and Silva said that by 2010, 5 percent of Brazilian biodiesel will come from abundant plants, such as African palm, cottonseed, sunflower and castor beans, grown by smaller farmers.

”It will help create jobs and income in the poorest regions of our country, especially in the northeastern semi-arid region, where many of these crops are actually native,” Silva said at the facility, which his operated by a subsidiary of the state-owned Petrobras.

But demonstrators upset with Bush’s visit here worry that the presidents really have visions of an OPEC-like cartel on ethanol. Protesters carrying stalks of sugar cane warned that increased ethanol production could lead to social unrest because most operations are run by wealthy families or corporations that reap the profits, while the poor are left to cut the cane with machetes.

”Bush and his pals are trying to control the production of ethanol in Brazil, and that has to be stopped,” said Suzanne Pereira dos Santos of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement.

The president did not see any of the protesters that have marred his visit during his hourlong motorcade to the depot. But about a half mile from where he spoke, a large white balloon hung in the sky emblazoned with blue letters that said ”Bush Out” in both English and Portuguese. The ”s” in Bush was replaced by a swastika.

Anti-American sentiment runs high in Brazil, especially over the war in Iraq.

Riot police fired tear gas and beat some protesters with batons Thursday after more than 6,000 people held a largely peaceful march through the financial district of Sao Paulo.

Intending to taunt Bush, Chavez planned an ”anti-imperialist” rally in a soccer stadium on Saturday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, about 40 miles across the Plate River from Montevideo, where Bush will be meeting with Uruguay’s president, Tabare Vazquez.

Chavez is a populist ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro who has led a leftward political shift in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

”I believe the chief objective of the Bush trip is to try to scrub clean the face of the (U.S.) empire in Latin America. But it’s too late,” Chavez said before the rally in an interview with Argentine state television Channel 7. ”It seems he’s just now discovered that poverty exists in the region.”

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