Chavez Taunts; Bush Turns The Other Cheek

Hugo Chavez, left, George W. Bush, right
President George W. Bush refused Saturday to be baited into verbal battle with Venezuela's outspoken Hugo Chavez. But Bush did give his Latin American foe a gentle, if indirect, dig.

Following his usual practice, Bush refused to utter Chavez' name during a news conference with the president of Uruguay — or even explain why he wouldn't. The meeting and appearance before reporters with President Tabare Vazquez was held just across a river from a huge anti-Bush rally hosted Friday night by Chavez, who is answering the president's trek through Latin America with jeers of "Gringo go home" and other harsh comments.

Bush drew only a quiet contrast with his fiery nemesis, who is increasing his stature in the region with colorful attacks blaming U.S.-style capitalism for poverty and inequality in Latin America at every turn. Bush said he favors a more tranquil form of engagement with his neighbors to the south.

"I would call our diplomacy quiet and effective diplomacy," Bush said.

Ignoring Chavez in favor of a focus on U.S. compassion for the region is Bush's persistent tack on his five-nation tour, which also includes visits to Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil.

"My message to the people in our neighborhood is that we care about the human condition and that we believe the human condition can be improved in a variety of ways," the president said.

Bush also was asked about Chavez the day before in Brazil — and in several rounds of pre-trip interviews. He answered in the same fashion.

Read about Chavez's Counter-Tour
Photos of the president's trip
Bush took a nearly one-hour helicopter ride from the capital, Montevideo, to this national park, Uruguay's equivalent to the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland.

Bush and Vazquez met at the Estancia Anchorena, appearing before reporters afterward under an open tent overlooking a pasture where horses, cattle and gun-toting security officers roamed. "In my state of Texas, when you invite someone to your estancia, it's a sign of respect," Bush said.

From the news conference, the leaders were going to a traditional barbecue known as an asado. Bush said he was looking forward to sampling Uruguayan beef.

Vazquez said he wanted to expand trade with the United States and increase scientific, technical and cultural exchanges. The goal, he said, is "a better standard of living for our people." He thanked the United States for a bridge loan that helped Uruguay avert financial crisis in 2002.

Bush reported talking with the president about the potential of ethanol as an alternate fuel. He praised Vazquez's efforts to improve his country's economy, which is growing at an estimated rate of 7 percent.

Vazquez pressed for a more liberal immigration policy in the United States. Bush said he would work for a "compassionate and rationale immigration law" that recognizes the United States cannot grant automatic citizenship to undocumented immigrants or "kick people out."

Vazquez is a left-of-center politician who shares a commitment to democracy and embraces free markets. Uruguay, a tiny coastal country overshadowed by its larger neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, wants to sell more beef and textiles to the United States, its biggest trade partner for two of the past three years.

The United States recently signed an agreement with Uruguay that could lay the groundwork for a free trade deal. But that could be a tricky move for Uruguay, which is part of a South American trade bloc that frowns on bilateral side deals outside the regional trade group.

Leftists in Uruguay oppose Bush's visit. Some in Latin America still blame Washington for tolerating brutal military governments such as the Argentina's dictatorship of 1976-83, when thousands of dissidents disappeared.

They remain wary of what they see as imperialistic tendencies in other parts of the world, such as Iraq.

The president and his advisers regularly deflect and downplay Chavez' verbal attack, in an attempt to sideline the leader of an oil-rich, powerful country.

Returning from a trip last month to Brazil and Argentina, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said, "We don't obsess about Hugo Chavez."

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Thursday that while it is tough to ignore Chavez' verbal jousts, Bush was concentrating on his meetings with more like-minded counterparts.

"I know you want to make this trip about Chavez," Snow told reporters aboard Air Force One as it flew to Uruguay. "It's not."

On Friday night, Chavez led a two-hour anti-Bush rally attended by nearly 20,000 people at a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

He called Bush a "political cadaver" and said he was on his way to becoming "cosmic dust."

"I believe the chief objective of the Bush trip is to try to scrub clean the face of the empire in Latin America. But it's too late," Chavez said on Argentine state television before the rally.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.