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Bush says U.S. will partner with Botswana to fight AIDS
GABORONE, Botswana -- President Bush pledged to the nation with the world's highest AIDS infection rate that it will have a strong partner in his administration in fighting the disease. "You will not face this enemy alone," he said Thursday.
Bush's remarks were greeted with chants of "Pula! Pula!," which means "all good things" in Botswana. But even as he was delivering the pledge, his $15 billion, five-year AIDS program was being trimmed in Congress.
And U.S. officials acknowledged that even with aggressive prevention and treatment programs -- like those in Botswana -- progress in turning the tide against the disease has been excruciatingly slow.
More than 38 percent of Botswana's adult population is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And although Bush described Botswana as being in the forefront of African countries in dealing with the epidemic, the nation's infection rate has remained level since 2001.
"Botswana is directly confronting HIV/AIDS and taking bold steps to overcome this crisis," Bush said in a luncheon toast to Botswana's President Festus Mogae."We applaud your leadership."
Among other things, Mogae has set in motion a program to provide free AIDS medicines to all who need them. That program is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Bush's half-day visit was the third stop of a five-nation African tour. He has been to Senegal and South Africa and visits Uganda and Nigeria before returning to Washington this weekend.
Botswana, a landlocked Texas-sized country in the southern tip of Africa, has been hailed as a model of good governance and development for the rest of the continent. In a meeting with Bush, the two leaders discussed U.S. trade with Botswana and the war on terrorism.
Mogae has said that AIDS has threatened his country's progress. AIDS, which has killed 17 million in sub-Saharan Africa, is "the deadliest enemy Africa has ever faced," Bush said.
In Washington on Thursday, however, the House moved to approve only two-thirds of the money available for the global HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment act that Bush signed in May.
Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the House subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, predicted Congress would still live up to its promise to spend $15 billion over five years. But he said that spending $3 billion in the first year, as Bush had originally proposed, was unrealistic when the program was just getting off the ground.
Kolbe's House Appropriations foreign operations panel approved $1.43 billion for the budget year starting Oct. 1 to fight AIDS and other infectious diseases. Another spending bill on the House floor Thursday would add $644 million, bringing the total to just over $2 billion -- up about $500 million from this year.
Even though Bush's basic proposal had called for spending $3 billion in the first year, budget officials agreed to the lower amount. They said they were not concerned about the action, but Democrats and AIDS activists said U.S. credibility would be damaged if Congress didn't allot the full $3 billion allowed under the law.
At a briefing in Pretoria, South Africa, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "I would, of course, preferred full funding of the president's request."
"We will make the best use of the money that Congress has provided to us," he said. "And I'll wait and see the completed action and see how this ultimately emerges from the Congress."
First lady Laura Bush, who is accompanying her husband on his African trip, met separately with HIV-positive children on Thursday as she visited a center where they and their parents are treated, counseled and given free AIDS drugs by U.S. drug companies.
The U.S. aid is "showing people here what the real face of America is like, the compassion that Americans have for the people here who are suffering with AIDS," she said, sitting between two 9-year-olds with HIV.
Bush said his trip to Africa was meant to demonstrate "that we're not only a powerful nation, we're also a compassionate nation."
"The average citizen cares deeply about the fact that people are dying in record numbers because of HIV/AIDS," Bush told reporters. "That's really the story that I want the people of Africa to hear and I want the people of America to know that I'm willing to take that story to this continent."
Botswana is rich and diamonds and has a stable government. Its status as a model of democracy and economic strength in Africa is one of the reasons it was chosen by the White House to be one of Bush's stops -- and earned Bush's praise at lunch.
"Botswana is known for the strength of your democracy and for the vigor of your economy," he said.