WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush, facing criticism he has ignored Latin America, said Monday the region’s grinding poverty is a scandal that has caused some to question the value of democracy. He said the United States will spend tens of millions of dollars to improve education, housing and health care across the region.
“The United States of America is committed to helping people rise out of poverty,” the president said.
Many children in Latin America do not finish grade school and many mothers never see a doctor, Bush said in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building to about 400 invited guests, most of them members of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“In an age of growing prosperity and abundance, this is a scandal and it is a challenge,” Bush said.
The speech came three days before the president leaves on a weeklong trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush’s efforts in Latin America have been overshadowed by the global war on terror, the fight against illegal drug trafficking and trade issues.
“It’s something we have not done well enough, getting out the full scope of the president’s message,” Hadley said at a briefing before the president’s address.
Since taking office, Bush has doubled U.S. foreign assistance to Latin America to about $1.6 billion a year. The money includes development assistance, military assistance and counter-narcotic assistance. Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. aide outside the Middle East and Afghanistan, with most of the money earmarked for anti-drug efforts.
Bush announced a series of steps to help the region:
A Navy medical ship, the Comfort, will make port calls in Belize, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. Its staff will treat 85,000 patients and conduct up to 1,500 surgeries.
The United States will commit $75 million over three years to help thousands of young people improve their English and study in the United States.