SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — President Bush tried to mend relations in Latin America with fresh promises of immigration reform yesterday, while a new security spat surfaced with Chile after an embarrassing fracas in which Bush intervened.
What was supposed to have been an elaborate state dinner with 200 people yesterday was downgraded to an official working dinner, reportedly because Chilean President Ricardo Lagos balked at Secret Service demands for guests to walk through metal detectors. The guest list for the working dinner was pared down to the leaders, their wives and top aides.
On Saturday night, Bush waded into a scuffle that erupted when Chilean authorities blocked the president’s Secret Service agents from accompanying him into a dinner. As tempers flared and a shoving match ensued, Bush pushed into the commotion, grabbed his lead agent, Nick Trotta, and pulled him inside.
The incident, shown repeatedly on television worldwide, was an unlikely episode in an otherwise staid gathering of 21 Pacific Rim leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. In a moment of levity, the leaders posed in colorful, hand-woven ponchos — following the summit tradition of wearing native garb of the host country.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, referring to the Saturday night scuffle, said, “The president is someone who tends to delegate but every now and then, he’s a hands-on kind of guy.”
Bush, arriving at La Moneda palace, greeted Lagos with self-deprecating humor: “Ricardo, aqui esta el gringo.” Translation: “Ricardo, the gringo’s here.”
The two-day summit ended with pledges to shore up global security, fight terrorism and push ahead with negotiations to lower trade barriers seen as impediments to economic growth.
Bush opened the day with Mexican President Vicente Fox, discussing immigration issues that are sensitive on both sides of the border. Bush began his presidency with a campaign to improve relations with Mexico but his attention was diverted by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Renewing a plan, which stalled in Congress after he unveiled it in January, Bush urged changes in U.S. law that could allow millions of undocumented laborers to work legally in the United States on temporary visas but would not provide a path to citizenship. Fox hopes to persuade Bush to expand his plan.
“One way to make sure the border is secure is to have reasonable immigration policies,” the president said. He said he assured Fox that Mexicans should be treated with respect and dignity in the United States.
Fox said he wanted to meet with Bush in Washington to discuss economic-security issues. “Mexico wants to fulfill its responsibility to make its economy grow, make it stronger, to have more jobs in Mexico,” Fox said. “That is our first priority.”
Fox said afterward he expected to meet with Bush in Washington in February or March to discuss migration and trade.
“Our friendship, our relationship is strong, it’s a very optimistic one,” Fox said.
Asked whether Bush had promised to move the immigration legislation forward, Fox told CNN’s “Late Edition:” “What I got, and very firmly, is his will, his will to attend this issue.”
Bush and Fox avoided talking about subjects where they differ, such as Iraq and Cuba, administration officials said.
The U.S. reputation in Latin America has been hurt by the Iraq war, which is deeply unpopular in the region. There also is a feeling that the Bush administration has neglected the needs of the Western Hemisphere, and there is friction over the U.S. push for open, freer economies, a campaign viewed by some as an unwelcome dictate from Washington.
After the summit, Bush met briefly with Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo to discuss an Andean free-trade pact involving Colombia, Peru and Ecuador in commerce with the United States.
Flying home to Texas today, Bush will stop in Cartegena, Colombia, to meet with President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative whose war against narcoterrorists and leftist rebels has received major funding from the United States.
The visit allows Bush to make a visible statement about the U.S. commitment to fighting terrorism. It also is meant to highlight American contributions that have helped to bring some stability to a country ravaged by decades of guerrilla war.