U.S. President George W. Bush and his left-wing nemesis Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez squared off on duelling tours of Latin America on Friday as they vied for the region’s hearts and minds.
Their ideological rivalry heated up as Bush visited Brazil to reach out to Latin America’s moderate left and Chavez responded with a trip to Argentina where he said the U.S. leader deserved the “gold medal for hypocrisy.”
Bush is seeking to overcome a sense of U.S. neglect in Latin America where opposition to the Iraq war has also damaged his administration’s standing and given Chavez a chance to rail against American “imperialism”.
About 200 Brazilian demonstrators, mostly students, burnt an effigy of Bush and chanted “Bush, chief of terrorism, we don’t want you in Latin America” near the hotel where he was staying. Troops and police stopped them from getting closer.
On the first leg of a five-nation tour, Bush met Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist ally Washington sees as a potential counterweight to Chavez, and the two announced an ethanol fuel development plan for the Americas.
Bush’s “ethanol diplomacy” plus new aid pledges are seen as an attempt to offset Chavez’s use of Venezuela’s oil wealth to court a new generation of Latin American leftist leaders in his quest for a regionwide socialist revolution.
To taunt Bush, Chavez, a close ally of communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro, planned to lead thousands of supporters on Friday in a football stadium rally in Buenos Aires coinciding with Bush’s arrival in neighbouring Uruguay.
“He’s a symbol of domination and we are a cry of rebellion against the domination … he’s trying to trick our people to divide us,” Chavez told reporters before he met with fellow leftist President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina.
Asked at a Sao Paulo news conference about Chavez’s insults and whether his trip would help limit his influence, Bush sidestepped the question but his message was clear.
“My trip down down here is to remind our country that South America, Latin America are good places to invest, particularly in countries that adhere to rule of law and are transparent and believe in the fundamentals of freedom,” he said in veiled swipe at Chavez’s anti-capitalist policies.
The Bush administration has dismissed frequent verbal attacks by Chavez, who called Bush the devil during a U.N. speech last year, and has questioned his commitment to democracy while criticising his nationalisation plans.
Bush acknowledged a perception that “our back has been turned” on Latin America but insisted: “The facts certainly dispel that … We care about our neighbourhood a lot.”
Bush, who vowed to make Latin America a priority when he took office in 2001, has been criticised for being distracted by Iraq, a conflict that has made him even more unpopular among Washington’s southern neighbours than he is at home.
Trying to turn back Chavez’s challenge, Bush seems to have taken a page from his fiery regional nemesis, seeking to remake himself as a social reformer committed to alleviating poverty.
He said he doubled U.S. aid to the region to $1.6 billion (828 million pounds) last year from the start of his administration, describing it as “social justice money.”
Amid increasingly entrenched anti-U.S. sentiment, few Latin Americans are likely to buy it. Bush, who last made such an extensive tour of the region in 2005, has until now mostly stressed trade, drug enforcement and immigration controls.
Though much of Latin America has embraced a U.S. model of free-market democracy, grievances linger against Washington for backing military dictatorships that once held repressive sway.
Violence erupted at demonstrations against Bush in Sao Paulo and the Colombian capital of Bogota on Thursday. Colombia’s police chief said leftist guerrillas planned attacks and sabotage during Bush’s visit there on Sunday.
Bush’s six-day trip will end with conservative allies in Guatemala and Mexico. Continuing his counter-tour, Chavez was to fly to Bolivia to visit flood-ravaged areas on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Fernanda Ezabella in Sao Paulo and Fiona Ortiz in Buenos Aires)