Bush's Bravado Faces Latin Skepticism

Tomorrow afternoon, George W. Bush will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Peru, arriving in Lima only three days after a deadly explosion just outside the U.S. Embassy there suggested a possible resurgence of rebel activity.

Bush's first Latin American stop beyond Mexico's southern border will take him to a nation where half of the people live in poverty, and three-quarters of them are disappointed with their new leader. U.S. efforts in the Andean country aren't doing that well, either.

One U.S.-designed anti-drug initiative that promised to create more jobs in Peru expired in December, while another led to the deaths last year of a U.S. missionary and her infant daughter when the plane in which they were flying was incorrectly identified and shot down by the Peruvian military. Wednesday's bomb blast killed nine people and injured dozens of others, but left Bush undeterred.

'You bet I am going,' he said minutes before his departure yesterday on the trek south. Those words of bold defiance are easily tempered, however, by the stark economic and political realities in the region that left the president with hardly anywhere else to go.

For openers, more than half the continent was more or less off limits. Four nations--Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador--are holding presidential elections this year, making a visit by Bush untimely. Most of those countries and others in South America also are battling myriad crises that would have been awkward or unwise for the U.S. president to confront. Despite Wednesday's attack which underscored the urgency of paying closer attention, Peru offered some of the most stable ground in an otherwise shaken and uncertain region.

It also has a comforting host for the historic 15-hour visit. Bush and Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo enjoy good rapport, and Toledo could use a little boost. The latest poll this week showed that his approval rating had plunged to 25 percent after less than eight months in office.

The visit will be a symbolic recognition of Peru's recent peaceful transition to democracy, and draw some world attention to the Andean country with the highest foreign investment potential. Both points were trumpeted in full-page advertisements in Washington newspapers in the days immediately preceding Bush's departure.

Peru also offers Bush another desirable stage. It underwent a false start on democracy in the 1990s under a president turned absolute ruler, Alberto Fujimori. Now in recovery, Peru is thus an ideal backdrop for Bush to discourage any democratically elected leader in the region from considering a similar transformation.

Moreover, standing shoulder to shoulder with Toledo, who attributes his slump in the polls to tough and necessary but unpopular decisions, Bush can issue one other warning to current and future regional leaders: Don't be tempted by populist measures unable to deliver the long-term benefits of U.S.-inspired democratic and free-market models.

Bush will not arrive completely empty-handed. He'll be pitching the notion of a new Millennium Challenge Fund, which would set aside up to $10 billion in aid to reward countries that fight corruption and invest in health and education. That could help leaders such as Toledo respond more immediately to popular demands that in recent years have led to the ouster of democratically elected officials in the region.

Some had been hoping the U.S. president would bring more--namely a renewed Andean Trade Preference Act, fresh off the floor of Congress. No other issue has so captured the interests of Andean politicians and business leaders over the past year. The measure, which opens the U.S. market to some Andean products in return for those countries' efforts against illicit drugs, expired in December.

Bush may repeat his commitment to renew and expand the legislation when he meets in Lima with regional leaders--nearly all of whom have heard it before. ATPA is arguably the least contested trade issue pending in Washington, and for many here and in Latin America, lack of progress on it has called into question the value of the president's visit to Lima as well as his promise to create a hemispheric free-trade zone by 2005.

For their part, Peruvian officials have been hoping for an agreement to reinstitute a drug-interdiction program suspended 11 months ago after the missionary plane was shot down. But as Bush left Washington that seemed unlikely. They also would like the U.S. president to promise them expedited declassification of U.S. documents that might shed light on abuses committed by Fujimori and his intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, both of whom enjoyed the backing of U.S. officials. Fulfilling such a promise may also be elusive.

It was George W. Bush the candidate who declared, 'Those who ignore Latin America do not fully understand America itself.' He criticized his predecessor for squandering opportunities in Latin America. This weekend, many Latin American leaders trying to understand the United States will be watching President Bush to see if still more opportunities will be lost.

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