Bush tries to convince Guatemalans that USA is compassionate nation

Frame-by-frame, the images of President Bush in Guatemala on Monday will depict sharp contrasts.

The leader of the richest nation reaching out to the impoverished. A smiling vegetable farmer benefiting from a free trade deal that Bush had trouble selling to Congress. Bush touring Mayan ruins and speaking out against social injustice suffered by Guatemala's indigenous citizens of Mayan ancestry, who have protested his visit.

Undeterred by demonstrations have dogged Bush at every stop on his five-nation Latin American trip, Bush will work to convince Guatemalans that the United States is a compassionate nation. It's the same message he delivered earlier at stops in Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia.

"It's very important for the people of South America and Central America to know that the United States cares deeply about the human condition, and that much of our aid is aimed at helping people realize their God-given potential," Bush said Sunday in Bogota, Colombia.

His goodwill tour also serves as a counterweight to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has been doing his own tour of Latin America. On Sunday in Bolivia, Chavez called for a socialist counterattack against the American "empire." Chavez has been pumping his nation's oil profits into social programs across the region to further the leftward political shift he's leading in the United States' backyard.

Using his own Marine One helicopter, Bush will fly around this mountainous Central American country, for a series of events meant to show that strong democratic reforms can improve the lives of Guatemalans.

He will visit with U.S. military medical team that offers basic health care - everything from giving vaccinations to helping build new health centers.

He'll tour Labradores Mayas, a thriving vegetable packing station in Chirijuyu that has received US$350,000 (EUR 266,000) in U.S. assistance since 2003 and is taking advantage of eased trade restrictions under the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement.

Congress narrowly passed the trade pact last year and Bush wants lawmakers to approve of three similar ones with Colombia, Panama and Peru. He acknowledges that these are "tough votes," but failing to get congressional approval would blunt Bush's weeklong message that free trade and democratic reforms can help lift Latin Americans from poverty.

The vegetable packing station he'll visit was started in the early 1990s by an indigenous farmer named Mariano Canu. The association of 66 small farming families produces 95,000 heads of lettuce a week that are sold in Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras. It employs 200 indigenous farmers and is one of the major vegetable suppliers for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Central American supermarkets, the AP says.

Guatemala's President Oscar Berger and his wife are going with the president and first lady Laura Bush to Santa Cruz Balanya, a town of about 10,000 mostly indigenous Guatemalans, to stress the need for social justice and equality.

Nearly three-quarters of Guatemala's indigenous people, descendants of native Mayans, live in poverty. Many who have protested Bush's visit do not agree with U.S. immigration policy and believe current trade agreements between the countries have kept Guatemalans from rising out of poverty.

The distribution of income throughout Guatemala is lopsided. The richest 20 percent of the population receives two-thirds of all income. As a result, about 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, including more than 7 million who live in extreme poverty, the AP reports.

On Sunday, in Tecpan, more than 100 Mayan Indians protested Bush's visit, holding signs that read: "No more blood for oil." The group is angry that Bush will be visiting the sacred Iximche archaeological site, founded as the capital of the Kaqchiqueles kingdom before the Spanish conquest in 1524.

Mayan priests say they will purify the sacred archaeological site at Iximche to rid it of any "bad spirits" after Bush is there.

Back in the capital, Bush and Berger will talk about trade and immigration. The money that Guatemalans in the United States send back to the nation has become a significant part of the nation's economy.

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