By Holly Rosenkrantz and Catherine Dodge
March 5 (Bloomberg) -- President George W. Bush said his administration's commitment to Latin America hasn't wavered as the U.S. focuses on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and promised to boost aid for housing, education and health care.
Three days before embarking on a week-long trip to South and Central America and Mexico, Bush told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington that providing greater economic and educational opportunity in the region will enhance the spread of democracy and advance U.S. interests on trade and immigration.
``The United States is working for an Americas where every child has access to a decent school,'' Bush said in announcing a plan to devote $75 million to help young people in Latin American improve their English and study in the U.S.
Bush is undertaking the Latin American trip amid growing distrust of the U.S., fueled in part by the rhetoric and policies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. In previewing the visit, administration officials today highlighted gains in the region, while also acknowledging a lack of progress in some areas.
``The benefits of democracy, free markets and economic integration have been slow in reaching many in the region,'' Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said. ``Poverty, inequality and social exclusion in the Americas is unexpectedly high. One in four in Latin America live on $2 a day or less.''
With Iraq and Afghanistan occupying U.S. attention and resources, the U.S. relationship with its southern neighbors ``has not gotten the attention it deserves,'' Hadley said. ``That's one of the reasons we're doing this trip.''
In his remarks today, Bush announced that the U.S. will send a Navy medical ship to Latin America and the Caribbean that will provide care to about 85,000 people in the region.
``It's in our interest that we get good health care to citizens in our neighborhood,'' he said. ``We're making it absolutely clear to people that we care.''
The U.S. also will provide an additional $385 million, on top of $100 million it has already contributed, to help working families in several Latin American countries get mortgages.
During his trip, Bush is seeking to counter the rise in popularity of Chavez. Venezuela is the third largest exporter of crude oil among the Organization of Oil Producing Countries, and Chavez is tightening his government's control of the economy.
Since beginning his second, six-year term on Jan. 10, Chavez has used decree powers to nationalize the country's largest telephone and electricity companies and seize a larger stake in foreign oil joint ventures.
Chavez also is turning up his rhetoric against the U.S. In an interview televised yesterday, Chavez accused the U.S. of plotting to assassinate him. He has threatened to hold a rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while Bush is on the other side of the Rio de la Plata in Uruguay on March 9.
On his radio program, Alo Presidente, Chavez joked with Bolivia's Morales: ``Hey Evo, did you hear them saying that I'm planning on sabotaging Bush's visit?''
In the countries he is visiting, including Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala, Bush is likely to stress U.S. trade with Latin America, which reached a milestone last year. Total two-way trade climbed to $555.1 billion, up 14.3 percent from 2005. Of that amount, Latin sales to the U.S. rose 13.3 percent to $331.9 billion, according to Latin Business Chronicle, citing Census Bureau figures.
To contact the reporter on this story: Holly Rosenkrantz in Washington atLast Updated: March 5, 2007 14:16 EST ; Catherine Dodge in Washington at ;