SAO PAULO, Brazil – Taunted by leftist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, President Bush on Friday insisted the United States is not neglecting Latin America and celebrated an alternative-fuels pact with Brazil as proof.
“I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives,” Bush said at a joint news conference with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “My trip is to explain as clearly as I can that our nation is generous and compassionate.”
Bush shrugged off fresh attacks from Chavez, his primary South American tormentor. The Venezuelan leader is staging a tour of the region to rival Bush’s weeklong, five-country visit.
On Friday, in Buenos Aires, Argentina – about 1,000 miles southwest of here – Chavez called Bush’s travels an attempt to divide and confuse Latin American nations.
“The future belongs to us,” Chavez told reporters, adding “Oh, ho ho! Gringo, go home!”
The two were even closer later Friday, when Chavez addressed an “anti-imperialist” rally in a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires while Bush arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay, across the Rio de la Plata.
“The U.S. president today is a true political cadaver, and now he does not even smell of sulfur anymore,” Chavez told a raucous stadium crowd, alluding to Bush’s waning years in office. “What the little gentleman from the North now exudes is the smell of political death, and in a very short time, he will be converted into cosmic dust and disappear from the stage.”
Chavez added that he did not come to sabotage Bush’s visit, saying the timing was a coincidence, even as Bush landed in Uruguay for a 36-hour visit.
Chavez is using his country’s vast oil wealth to reach out to ordinary Latin Americans and to court other leftist leaders.
Asked directly about Chavez’s latest taunts, Bush refused to mention Chavez by name, a common practice. “I bring the good will of the United States to South America and Central America,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Bush noted total U.S. aid has doubled since he took office to $1.6 billion last year. Some Latin American critics say Bush’s claim is misleading because it is based on using 2001 as the starting point, and U.S. aid had dipped sharply that year, setting an artificially low benchmark.
The Bush administration sees the leftist Silva as a counterbalance to Chavez for influence in the region. As a sign of his standing, the president has invited Silva to visit the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., on March 31.
The centerpiece of Bush’s Brazilian stop – the first before he headed on to Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico – was a new ethanol development agreement.
The agreement, signed Friday morning by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Brazilian counterpart, has the U.S. and Brazil joining forces to promote more ethanol use in nations lying between Brazil and the United States. It also creates new quality standards for the alternative fuel.
But there were clear remaining tensions on a related issue: the 54-cent-a-gallon U.S. tariff on imports of Brazilian ethanol made from sugar, a measure designed to help U.S. corn growers. Ethanol can be made from either crop.
Before Bush’s visit, Silva said the tariff was unfair and that he would press Bush to try to get the U.S. Congress to repeal it.
“It’s not going to happen. The law doesn’t end until 2009. And the Congress will … look at it when the law ends,” Bush said tersely during their news conference.