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Inside Politics

Bush trip may have started healing Latin America rift

Story Highlights

• President Bush traveled to five Latin America countries in seven days
• Bush tried to overcome perception that the U.S. has abandoned Latin America
• Trip somewhat overshadowed by U.S. attorneys controversy in Washington
• Progress on immigration and trade issues will depend on congressional action
By Juan Carlos Lopez
CNN Washington Bureau
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CNN en Español Washington correspondent Juan Carlos Lopez traveled with President Bush during this trip to Latin America and on Bush's return to Washington on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- You can take the president out of the Beltway, but you can't keep the Beltway away from the president, as the president himself learned on his recent trip to Latin America.

President Bush visited five countries in seven days in an effort to convince the region's leaders that -- contrary to what some critics say -- he hasn't neglected the region.

Did it work? Time, as they say, will tell. Time, as they say, will tell, but many believe Mister Bush took an important first step.

Here was the president of the United States venturing into a new political scenario, meeting with left leaning counterparts in Brazil and Uruguay, who want a stronger relationship with the United States.

Mister Bush set a different tone He publicly reached out to Brazil's Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and Uruguay's Tabaré Vasquez as equals, visited troubled allies like Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Oscar Berger of Guatemala and spent two days in Mexico, his closest ally in the hemisphere -- and not only geographically.

He heard out Mexican President Felipe Calderon on issues such as immigration, the war on drugs and free trade.

For seven days Bush was able to get off the subject of Iraq, although the war followed him on the trip. Throughout, he ignored tautsn from Venezuala's President Hugo Chavez, even though reporters asked him to respond at almost every stop.

At first, back home brushfires in California absorbed the attention of the U.S. media, and then the controversy over the firing of U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department, all while images of violent anti-Bush protests in the countries the president visited, and Chavez's parallel anti-Bush campaign, filled U.S. TV screens.

Did the relentless news cycle diminish the trip? Not really. The president's trip received ample coverage in Latin America, the target audience. The president said many things people wanted to hear, like his acknowledgement of U.S. responsibility in the flourishing drug trade with the simple observation that American consumers flush with cash give life to a narcotics supply system, with terrible consequences for the region where drugs are produced.

He again promised to do all he can to promote comprehensive immigration reform, although it's up to the Democratic-controlled Congress to hammer out legislation on the matter.

He repeated Latin Americans how compassionate and generous Americans were with $1.6 billion in aid to the region last year. It was a message meant for two publics: the U.S. taxpayers, so they know where their money is spent, and people on the receiving end, who may have been asking what the United States has been doing for them lately.

The trip produced a succession of images that show President Bush in another light:

  • Attending a press conference where a portrait of Simon Bolivar stared at Presidents Uribe and Bush, providing a reminder that Bolivar's legacy of liberating five south American countries from Spain is not exclusive to Chavez and the revolution he tailored after the Venezuelan hero.
  • Heaping lettuce and walking through Santa Cruz de Balantyá to applause, a town rebuilt after the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala with the United States' help, and kissing women and children.
  • Meeting with Afro-Colombians in Bogotá and hearing about their plight.
  • Joking in Uruguay about how he and Vasquez are both "Tejanos," a running joke in Uruguay, but not clear to everyone. Bush, although born in Connecticut, considers himself a Texan. Vásquez was born in the "Teja" neighborhood of Montevideo, so, yes, they are both "Tejanos."
  • What will come from this trip? Too soon to tell. It's up to Congress to decide the fate of immigration reform and free-trade agreements with Colombia and Peru, among other areas of interest to the region, but it won't be an easy task. Those issues cause divisions between those who support and reject free trade, and the many visions of what comprehensive immigration reform should be -- will there or won't there be a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico Border?

    The border fence proposal is among many topics of discussion in Latin America that add to a rejection of U.S. foreign policy, with the war in Iraq as the main point of contention. Though the war is thousands of miles away it stirs passions in the region, so much that Bush is highly unpopular down south.

    This trip is a first step. The real challenge is figuring out if it was taken at the right moment, or if as many experts predicted, it might prove to be too little, too late.

    President Bush, left, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon listen to the U.S. national anthem at welcoming ceremonies in Merida, Mexico, on Tuesday.

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