President Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva set aside differences Friday and announced a partnership to promote the use of alternative energy to reduce the Western Hemisphere’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Lula, whose left-of-center government has been critical of Bush on Iraq and the environment, suggested that the two countries can work pragmatically on issues of common interest even if they have disagreements in other areas.
“After all, we ... who have polluted the world so much in the 20th century need to make our contribution to de-polluting it in the 21st century,” Lula said after showing off a state-of-the-art fuel depot outside Sao Paulo.
Bush, mindful of the political power of petrochemicals in Latin America, described energy as a national security issue.
“Dependency upon energy from somewhere else means that you’re dependent upon the decisions from somewhere else. And so as we diversify away from the use of gasoline by using ethanol, we’re really diversifying away from oil,” Bush said.
What Bush left unsaid was that in Central and South America, dependence on foreign oil does not mean the Middle East as much as it does Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, has used his oil wealth to pursue increasingly anti-U.S. policies.
In fact, Chavez staged a rally Friday evening in Buenos Aires, just across the Rio de la Plata from Montevideo, Uruguay, where Bush arrived in late afternoon after leaving Brazil.
During his one-day visit to Brazil, Bush and his aides avoided discussing Chavez and his influence in Latin America, where many see the Venezuelan leader as taking up the leftist, anti-American mantle being relinquished by the ailing Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Asked at a news conference whether his weeklong swing through the region would provide Chavez with more ammunition, Bush answered without mentioning him directly.
“This trip is to remind people of the ties that bind us and the importance of this region for the future of the United States,” Bush said.
Brazil and the U.S., the two most populous nations in the hemisphere, signed a memorandum of understanding Friday to share biofuel technology and promote its use by other nations in the region.
The fuel depot that Bush and Lula visited -- operated by Petrobras, the state-run energy company -- has pumps that can dispense ethanol, biodiesel or traditional gasoline.
Brazil is the world’s largest producer of ethanol, followed by the U.S. Brazilian ethanol is made mainly from sugar cane, while U.S. ethanol comes mostly from corn.
“You’ve got great scientists, we’ve got great scientists. It makes sense for us to collaborate for the good of mankind,” Bush said.
However, a U.S. tariff of 54 cents a gallon on sugar ethanol from Brazil remains a sore point between the two countries.
“It’s not going to happen,” Bush said when asked at a news conference whether the U.S. would lift the tariff, set to expire in 2009.
Lula shrugged. “It’s a process,” he said, smiling at the Brazilian press corps.
Bush has proposed increasing the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline in the United States, as part of a plan he announced during his State of the Union address to reduce American dependency on oil imports.
Brazil has been developing ethanol for 30 years, and Lula sees it as a key driver of his country’s economy.
The common message from each president was that increasing production of ethanol could help Brazil’s economic development and ease its stifling poverty.
“The growing use of biofuel will be an inestimable contribution to the generation of income, social inclusion and reduction of poverty in many poor countries of the world,” Lula said.
Recognition of the persistence of poverty is a new theme for Bush, who has been seen in the region as largely interested in just three things: terrorism, trade and drug interdiction.
To counter that image, Bush made a point in all his remarks to talk about the need to alleviate poverty and increase economic opportunity, and he has emphasized American largesse in the region.
“I share your concerns about the people in democracy not receiving the benefits of democracy. I think you’re very wise to recognize that democracy is only as strong as the people feel that the society benefits them,” Bush said at the news conference.
The president bristled when a Brazilian reporter accused him of having turned his back on Latin America for most of his presidency.
“I don’t think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people’s lives,” Bush said.
He asserted that government aid to the region had doubled during his presidency and noted that the U.S. sent billions to the region each year in the form of wages from workers employed in the States.
“My trip is to explain, as clearly as I can, that our nation is generous and compassionate, that when we see poverty, we care, that when we see illiteracy, we want to do something about it, that when we find there to be a deficiency in healthcare, we’ll help to the extent we can,” Bush said.
Bush visited a community center in a poor neighborhood, where he chatted with youngsters working in a computer lab, shook rattles during a samba performance and discussed development problems with local business owners.
“This is very sophisticated computer work,” Bush told the children. “Thank you for letting us come by to say hello.”
But signs of dismay with Bush’s policies were never far away.
Outside the Petrobras fuel depot, protesters inflated a car-sized balloon printed with the slogan “Bush Out” in Portuguese, the “s” in Bush replaced with a swastika. Other demonstrators burned a U.S. flag within sight of the hotel where he stayed.
In Uruguay, local new reports said thousands of demonstrators were in the streets before Bush arrived, including dozens of masked protesters with rocks and sticks who shattered the windows of two McDonald’s outlets.
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Leading ethanol producers
(In billions of gallons per year)
Sources: F.O. Licht, Associated Press