Bush Faces Tough Questions In Guatemala

This reporter's notebook was written by CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante.



Great pictures today: President Bush and Mrs. Bush with indigenous Mayan children at a school and medical clinic in rural Guatemala.

A marimba band in the small town square where the first couple inspected local handicrafts and greeted the enthusiastic crowd, then donated books to the local library.

President Bush, clad in a colorful embroidered Mayan jacket, hoisting cartons of local lettuce to workers on a truck.

Friendly crowds and some protesters chanting and waving anti-war and anti-Bush slogans as the president and his wife headed to the Mayan ruins at Iximche.

But no pictures, at least not yet, of the ceremony planned by some Mayans to "cleanse the ruins of evil spirits" following the president's visit.

For the White House communications operation, it's visual images like these that count. They're planned to highlight the theme of this presidential trip: caring and compassion.

But the reality was a little harsher when Mr. Bush held a news conference with Guatemala's President Berger.

Three of the four questions were about the very touchy subject of immigration, specifically about the stepped-up enforcement along the border that has resulted in thousands more deportations of illegal aliens.

President Bush gamely explained that he hoped to convince the Congress to act on new immigration bill by late summer. But it was clearly less than his hosts wanted to hear.

And the compassion message of all those great pictures was perhaps less effective because there is no easy answer to the immigration question.

Unless you've been paying close attention, you probably haven't seen or heard much about the president's visit to five countries in Latin America, except perhaps that he was challenged and ridiculed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

Administration officials are annoyed that Chavez rained on the president's parade, though they refuse to admit it. What annoys them even more is the attention paid to Chavez by the U.S and Latin American media.

The White House response is no response. The president won't answer Chavez' taunts; he won't even mention his name.

The stops in Brazil, Uruguay, Columbia, Guatemala and Mexico were planned as a goodwill tour to demonstrate that the United States cares about social justice in the hemisphere.

It's been a hard sell, despite a handful of new aid announced on this trip. Even without Chavez' heckling, the president is unpopular in Latin America, both because of the Iraq war and because of U.S. policies on trade and immigration. The situation is complicated by memories of U.S. support for military regimes in the region during the 70s and 80s.

The last stop on the tour — Tuesday and Wednesday — is Mexico. And again, the big issues are trade and immigration.

Mr. Bush came to office promising to pay close attention to his Southern neighbors. But that changed after 9/11, and Latin America has been largely ignored for most of the last six years.

This trip probably won't change feelings here. But the White House hopes it's at least a start.

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