US President George W. Bush criticized the economic model of Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez, saying it would lead to more poverty, on the eve of a tour of Latin America aimed at warning against the dangers of populism and isolationism.
In an interview published Wednesday in five Latin American newspapers, Bush also downplayed a planned demonstration against his visit that Chavez was to attend in Buenos Aires on Friday that would coincide with the US leader's visit to neighboring Uruguay.
Bush leaves late Thursday for a week of meetings with the leaders of Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico aimed at promoting democracy, free trade and cooperation with the United States and convincing them to turn away from what his administration calls the "false promises" of leaders, such as Chavez, who advocate an alternative vision.
Chavez and other leftist leaders seem to have found a growing audience for their policies in Latin America in recent months.
"I strongly believe that government-run industry is inefficient and will lead to more poverty," Bush replied to a question on Chavez's economic model, which includes nationalizations and muscular state intervention.
"So the United States brings a message of open markets and open government to the region," he said.
Bush acknowledged the liberal model and free-market agreements that he advocates can take time to produce concrete results. "I fully recognize that until people actually feel progress in their pocketbook, that there's going to be frustrations with forms of government. But that doesn't mean you kind of revert to something that I don't believe will work," he said.
The US president expressed hope that the Cuban communist system erected under almost five decades of rule by Fidel Castro, 80, would not persist after the ailing leader's death, if that is what Cuban voters wanted.
"I don't know how long he's going to live -- but, nevertheless, I do believe that the system of government that he's imposed upon the people ought not live if that's what the people decide," Bush said.
"We believe it ought to be up to the people, the long-suffering people of that island, to decide their fate, not the fate -- not to be decided because somebody is somebody's brother," he said.
Castro underwent intestinal surgery in July and handed over power temporarily, he said, to his brother, defense chief Raul Castro.
Bush also indirectly warned South American leaders against inciting US protectionism.
"People shouldn't take for granted that the United States wants to have trade agreements. As a matter of fact, there's a strong protectionist sentiment in America. I strongly resist those temptations," he said.
He called his upcoming talks with Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva on the Doha round of international trade negotiations to lower barriers "very important."
"The Doha round, in my judgment, is a vital round that we would like to see progress, because I'd repeat to you that a system that trades fairly and a system with more open markets is one that allows people to more likely rise out of poverty. A successful round of Doha is by far the most effective poverty-alleviating program in the world," he said.
Regarding the large "anti-imperialist" rally featuring Chavez being organized in Argentina's capital, Bush said: "I go to a lot of places and there are street rallies. And my attitude is, I love freedom and the right for people to express themselves. I bring a message of goodwill to Uruguay and to the region."
Bush gave the interview to Estado Sao Paulo of Brazil, El Pais of Uruguay, El Tiempo of Colombia, Prensa Libre of Guatemala and Reforma of Mexico -- newspapers of the five countries he is to visit through March 14.