ESTANCIA ANCHORENA, Uruguay – Over lamb chops and cuts of beef, President Bush chatted amiably Saturday at this presidential retreat with a former leader of a legendary band of leftist guerrillas known as the Tupamaros.
“I respect you and I’m proud to be in your country,” Bush told Jose “Pepe” Mujica, now Uruguay’s minister of agriculture and livestock, according to a White House aide.
Mujica was pleased to give Bush an expansive overview of this tiny nation’s agricultural needs, the aide said. This is the same Mujica who, in comments to media here, has acknowledged feeling odd about the notion of cozying up to a U.S. president.
“If I weren’t a minister, I’d be marching against Bush,” Mujica, a political prisoner for more than a dozen years under the former military dictatorship who long ago renounced violence, told the Argentine newspaper Clarin before Bush’s arrival. But, Mujica added, “negotiating is not selling one’s soul or changing one’s ideas.”
Just as some Latin American leaders are moderating their reflexive Yanqui-bashing, so too is the White House reaching out to the resurgent left in Latin America – with the notable exception, of course, of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Bush’s chief nemesis in the region.
In the president’s first two stops in Latin America, here and Brazil, the White House has sought to showcase its ability to work with the new generation of left-wing leaders, men such as Uruguayan President Tabare Vasquez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The White House views them as potential allies against Chavez, though both maintain cordial relations with the anti-American leader.
The president’s trip to Uruguay bared a kind of identity crisis among the leftist government. Many seemed incredulous that Bush could even be invited here.
“Señor Bush is the most execrable, murderous, bellicose representative who exists in the world,” Vasquez’s minister of social progress, Marina Arismendi, declared before the president’s arrival.
Others took a more pragmatic approach.
“A better commercial relationship with the United States is fundamental,” Finance Minister Danilo Astori told reporters here.
Bush arrived late Friday in Uruguay, a country of 3 million that elected Vasquez president two years ago. Vasquez heads a coalition known as the Broad Front, which includes former leftist guerrillas and communists.
Sometimes-violent protests greeted Bush’s arrival to Uruguay, just as protesters took to the streets in Brazil on the president’s first stop on his five-country, six-day swing through Latin America, his longest trip to the region. The protests are likely to continue in Colombia, where Bush is scheduled to visit today, and in Guatemala and Mexico.