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Scepticism and distrust of Bush likely at Americas Summit.

Monday, January 12th 2004 - 20:00 UTC
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U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to meet with scepticism and rejection of his policies by regional leaders at the Special Summit of the Americas meeting set to start today in Monterrey, Mexico.

Three years after taking office, Bush has only now decided to focus on the problems confronting the Americas, supposedly one of his top foreign policy priorities during the campaign that brought him to the presidency in 2001.

While the administration has thus far preferred to cite the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the international conflict over the war in Iraq as justification for its neglect of hemispheric issues, it has decided that now is the time to buddy up to the country's hemispheric neighbors.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said the Bush Administration wants to show that it is "intensely involved" in the threats facing the region and seeks to "reinforce democracy and promote prosperity" there.

The U.S. president will utilize his recently proposed temporary workers program, which would grant legal status to millions of undocumented foreigners living in the United States, as a sign that he is putting out his hand to the other 33 leaders in the region that will be in Monterrey, with the exception of Cuba.

The White House aims to turn the page on a period of tense relations with governments in the hemisphere which, despite strong pressure from Washington, refused to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq or push any agenda to conclude national security and trade agreements.

Rice said Friday that such differences had been "overcome," citing as an example the fact that Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox "have had a few very good conversations" in recent days.

The good intentions of the United States, for the most part, respond to Washington's desire to speed up negotiations on an agreement to create a free-trade zone stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego before the presidential elections in November.

The issue will be another prickly one in Monterrey, even though it does not appear on the forum's official agenda, as Brazil had requested. The Portuguese-speaking country has become the region's principal opponent of the trade accord it claims is not in the best interests of underdeveloped countries.

Brazil has emerged as the "spokesperson" for the continent, whose governments generally reject Washington's plan, which focuses on anti-terrorism policies and free trade agreements, and advocates one that would see poverty in the region as the main concern.

Some 220 million people in the region - 43 percent of Latin America's population - live below the poverty line and the situation has only gotten worse in the last 10 years, despite the fact that democracy has settled in throughout the hemisphere, except for in Cuba.

Bush will also have to weather the storm created by his recent decision to "tag" all citizens in the hemisphere who travel to the United States, with the exception of Canadians, and for the State Department's recent criticism of Argentina's rapprochement with Cuba.

But these points of contention may spur some sort of real dialogue at the Monterrey summit, which was specially convened to address the important regional changes that have occurred since the last forum in Quebec, Canada, in 2001.

Since then, the continent has seen social uprisings bring down governments in Argentina and Bolivia, a failed coup attempt in Venezuela and a widespread unemployment crisis which has affected 20 million people.

According to Miguel Diaz, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the fact that expectations are so low may facilitate progress on concrete issues.

"In the past, pomp and grandiose promises have abounded, and continuity and achievements have been lacking," said Diaz, emphasizing that "now there is a more broad-minded approach within the Bush administration about what should be done" in the region.

Many see Bush as simply hedging his bets to garner the Hispanic vote when he goes up for reelection in 10 months.

The head of a group of Hispanic Democratic lawmakers, Ciro Rodriguez, said, "It has only been during (Bush's) campaign functions that we have heard the president's plans to strengthen and improve United States' relationship with its Latin American neighbors."

Categories: Mercosur.

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