Bush, who arrived late Thursday for a two-day summit, is trying to reverse the image many Latin Americans have of the United States: a powerhouse preoccupied with Iraq and terrorism and little interested in the social and political troubles in the region.
Trade and creating jobs to combat poverty and strengthening democratic governments in Latin America is the focus of the fourth Summit of the Americas that opens Friday in this coastal resort with Bush and leaders and top officials from 33 other democratically elected leaders in the Western Hemisphere.
The meeting here and stops in Brazil and Panama, are not going to patch up problems Bush faces, but bilateral discussions with Latin American leaders might ease tensions. And Bush may be able to push modest initiatives that show good will to the region.
"This is going to be a tough crowd, a skeptical crowd," said Michael Shifter, a Latin American expert at the Inter-American Dialogue research group in Washington. "With a few exceptions, he's not going to get a lot of warm abrazos (hugs) from the leaders."
CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk said Mr. Bush is traveling to a virtual perfect storm in Argentina, with three gripes coming together: regional disputes over the value of free trade, gripes about neglect of the region and the International Monetary Fund negotiations looming.
"Although there has been overall economic growth in the region, debt has grown along with poverty, and Latin America has not been on the U.S. agenda for several years," Falk reports.
Chavez, an outspoken critic of Bush and friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has said he'll use the summit as a stage to denounce the United States as a "capitalist, imperialist model" of democracy that exploits the economies of developing nations.
Chavez, top Cuban officials and demonstrators at a separate "People's Summit" here, claim Bush wants to open up Latin America to more corporations that will end up enslaving already poor workers.
Bush and Chavez likely will meet up with each other on Friday, shortly after Chavez delivers a speech to a demonstration of mostly anti-Bush protesters. Chavez has joked about whether Bush is afraid of him, saying he might sneak up and scare Bush at the summit.
Bush's trip comes as he faces the lowest job approval ratings of his presidency back home. U.S. military deaths in the war in Iraq, an unpopular conflict in Latin America, has surpassed the 2,000 mark; Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff was charged with perjury and obstruction charges and Bush had to replace a Supreme Court nominee who withdrew after mounting criticism from members of the president's own party. At home Bush's popularity rating is at an all time low.
"This is an important opportunity to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the Americas, especially in the face of the widespread impression that the Bush administration's interest in and attention to the region has been on the foreign affairs back burner since 9-11," said Peter DeShazo, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric affairs.
Bush wants to re-ignite talks stalled for years over the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas — stretching from Alaska to Argentina — that would overtake the European Union as the world's largest trade zone.
Bush himself acknowledged that the U.S.-led idea for a mega free-trade area reaching into every country in the Western Hemisphere, except Cuba, had stalled. However, a high-ranking Brazilian official, who said he wasn't authorized to give his name, told The Associated Press on Thursday afternoon that 28 of the 34 countries participating in the summit had agreed talks should begin as early as April.