President Bush is expanding U.S. aid for education, health care, housing and other programs for Latin America. The announcement came just days before the president is scheduled to make a five-nation tour of the region.
The president's message is simple: the United States has not forgotten its neighbors to the south.
He said, "The working poor of Latin America need change and the United States of America is committed to that change."
Administration officials say they are well aware U.S. efforts in the region have been overshadowed by developments elsewhere in the world. They say they understand why some in Latin America feel they have been ignored and strenuously argue that is not the case.
In a Washington speech to a group of Hispanic business leaders, President Bush said he remains committed to bolstering democracies in the region, and helping them serve the poor. He said despite economic gains throughout the hemisphere, too many people remain mired in poverty.
"Nearly one out of four people in Latin America live on less than two dollars a day," he said. "Many children never finish grade school. Many mothers never see a doctor. In an age of growing prosperity and abundance, this is a scandal and a challenge."
Mr. Bush said the United States will provide tens of millions of dollars in additional aid in three key areas: education, health care and housing. He said new programs will be set up to help disadvantaged students, promote home ownership, and get health services to those most in need.
The president made specific mention of a new regional medical training facility that will be set up in Panama. He also announced the U.S.S. Comfort – a navy medical ship that saw service in the Iraq war – will be sent to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Mr. Bush said, "The Comfort will make port calls in Belize and Guatemala and Panama and Nicaragua and El Salvador and Peru and Ecuador and Colombia, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname."
"It is going to be busy. Altogether the Comfort's doctors, nurses and health care professionals expect to treat 85,000 patients and conduct up to 1,500 surgeries," he added.
The president delivered the speech just three days before he is set to leave Washington on a week-long journey to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
Aides say he has wanted to make the trip for some time to highlight his commitment to the region, and they note that his schedule includes numerous visits to facilities that are trying to make a difference in the lives of the poor and the disenfranchised.
This is Mr. Bush's most extensive trip to Latin America since taking office in January 2001. And it comes at a time when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is trying to galvanize anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.
At a briefing for reporters, White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked if President Bush is going to Latin America to counter the Venezuelan leader's growing influence.
He said, "There have been a number of cases in which that government has tried to intervene in elections, and so far is batting zero."
Snow said the main reason for the trip is to underscore the U.S. commitment to the region, and the president's firm belief that good governments committed to democracy and free markets have the potential to lift their people out of poverty.