United States President George W Bush has announced plans for additional US aid initiatives in Latin America days before a six-day, five-nation tour to boost the US image in the region.
In a speech to members of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce here Monday, Bush decried widespread poverty in the region and pledged additional US programmes to boost education, health care, home ownership and business.
"The working poor of Latin America need change, and the US is committed to that change," Bush said. "It is in our national interests, it is in the interest of the US to help the people in democracies in our neighbourhood succeed."
Bush emphasised that US aid to Latin America had increased to $1.6 billion last year from $860 million per year when he became president in 2001.
But Bush's upcoming visit to the region still drew criticism from members of Congress who said the president has focused on the Middle East at the expense of Latin America.
"The problems in the Middle East are very important and we need to stabilize that region and help over there as much as possible," said Dan Burton, senior member of Bush's Republicans on the House of Representatives subcommittee that deals with foreign policy in the Americas.
"But we haven't paid enough attention to them (Central and South Americas)."
The administration counters that claim not only with the increase in foreign aid but by noting Bush has travelled to the region eight times, more than any other president.
On Monday, he announced additional spending of $75 million for an education programme that would allow students from the region to study in the US and an additional $385 million to expand a programme that underwrites mortgages for families in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Central America.
The US will focus on health care through a new initiative, the Health Care Professional Training Centre in Panama, to train nurses and other medical workers, he said.
The US Navy medical ship, the Comfort, will also travel to the region in June to provide care to the poor and treat around 85,000 people, Bush said.
Bush leaves Thursday for the trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
Bush's tour is meant to send the message that his government values Latin America. The administration is viewed as having selected capitals with more moderate governments and leaders in whom the US sensed growing unease with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's positions.