By Roger Runningen
March 7 (Bloomberg) -- President George W. Bush, trying to stem a spread of anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, said free trade remains one of the best tools to alleviate poverty even if the benefits take time to accrue.
``There are great expectations when trade agreements are signed, that all of a sudden there's going to be instant prosperity,'' Bush said in an interview with representatives of five Latin American news organizations yesterday at the White House. ``I understand if you're poor, it's hard to be patient.''
Bush leaves tomorrow on a six-day trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico in a diplomatic offensive aimed partly at countering the influence in the region of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, 52, who has railed against Bush and the U.S. while consolidating control over the country's industry.
``Chavez is waging an effective campaign against the U.S., which has gained sympathy in many parts of Latin America,'' said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American-Dialogue, a research group in Washington. ``The White House is concerned about the decline in U.S. influence and standing.''
Asked about the steps Chavez has taken to nationalize the country's largest telephone and electricity companies, Bush dodged the opportunity to criticize the Venezuelan president.
``Each leader's going to have to adopt a governing style and economic model that they believe yields to prosperity,'' Bush said. ``I strongly believe that government-run industry is ineffective and will lead to more poverty.''
Bush praised Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's support for an investigation into alleged links between lawmakers and right- wing paramilitary groups. He promised to work with leaders of Mexico and Guatemala to reduce illegal immigration, and he said he would push for congressional approval on tentative trade accords with Colombia, Panama and Peru.
``This will be a tough vote,'' Bush told the reporters. ``People shouldn't take access to the U.S. market for granted.''
The U.S. and Uruguay in January signed a ``framework'' agreement to begin free-trade negotiations.
Total two-way, U.S.-Latin America trade climbed to $555.1 billion last year, up 14.3 percent from 2005. Of that amount, Latin American sales to the U.S. rose 13.3 percent to $331.9 billion, according to Latin Business Chronicle.
In talks on Friday, Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will sign an agreement sharing ethanol technology with other countries in the region.
Global Trade Talks
Bush said the two leaders also will confer on the world- trade talks that collapsed in July. An agreement could pump about $96 billion into the world's economy, according to the World Bank. The U.S., European Union, Japan and Brazil have clashed over the depth of cuts in farm subsidies.
``The best way to alleviate poverty is for there to be prosperity, and one way to enhance prosperity is through a world that trades freely and fairly,'' Bush said.
The president is supplementing his call for trade with promises of more aid. In a speech March 5 in Washington, Bush said that since he took office the U.S. has doubled the amount of assistance to Latin America to a total of $1.6 billion last year. That includes money for education and health care.
Bush, asked about Cuba's government in a post-Fidel Castro era, said he hope the island nation's citizens would be able to express themselves ``openly, without fear of reprisal.''
``What I hope happens is that we together insist that transition doesn't mean transition from one figure to another, but transition means from one type of government to a different type of government,'' Bush said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Runningen in Washington atLast Updated: March 7, 2007 05:00 EST ,