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LATIN AMERICA Rice delivers freedom message



Published: Sat, April 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The secretary of state sought to erase doubts about the United States created by the war in Iraq.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) -- Conflicting priorities, perceptions of neglect by Washington and unease about U.S. policies in Iraq and elsewhere have caused the United States and Latin America to drift apart.

Those strains help explain the effort by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during stops in four countries in the region last week, to revitalize the relationship. She pledged that the Bush administration would work as partners with Latin American countries to make their governments more honest, effective and accountable.

"The United States is committed to the success of democracy in Latin America," Rice said in a visit to Brazil's capital.

"Do not lose your hope. Do not lose your courage. And most of all, do not turn your back now," Rice said, directing her words at the tens of millions of Latin Americans who have yet to benefit from two decades of democracy in the region.

After her trip to Brazil, Colombia, Chile and El Salvador, it is not clear whether Latin Americans have a different perception of the United States.

'Gunboat diplomacy'

The U.S.-Latin American relationship reached a low point during President Bush's first term. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq revived memories of the "gunboat diplomacy" era of U.S.-Latin American relations of a century ago. In addition, there was deep concern in Latin America by the failure to find doomsday weapons in Iraq, undercutting the U.S. rationale for invading.

Disclosures of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere added to the strains.

Three Central American countries and the Dominican Republic did provide troops for nation-building efforts in Iraq. Except for a contingent from El Salvador, all those troops have returned home. No similar offers came from South America.

With U.S. foreign policy focused on terrorism and nuclear proliferation, little attention is paid to Latin America's priorities.

On Cuba, for example, U.S. efforts to isolate the island nation have earned scant support in Latin America; no country in the region endorses Washington's embargo of Cuba.

The United States has responded generously to humanitarian crises in the region. But the administration has yet to send any money to Latin America from a Bush program designed to reward poor countries whose governments are pursuing sound economic policies and are investing in their people.

Already deemed eligible for such aid are Nicaragua, Honduras and Bolivia.

Beyond that, disagreements have blocked Bush's goal of negotiating a 34-nation free trade pact that would extend from Alaska to Argentina. The administration has reached agreement on a series of bilateral and regional deals with Latin American nations.

Avoid radicalism

Rice's implicit message during her travels was that the politics of the region could swing radical if elected governments did not take the trouble to become good ones.

In 1998, Venezuelans fed up with ineffective traditional parties elected as president Hugo Chavez, an outsider who promised to shake up the system.

He has done that, using oil wealth to assist the country's long-neglected poor. The United States is concerned that Chavez is turning Venezuela into an authoritarian state. His pro-Cuban proclivities were demonstrated on Thursday when, as Rice arrived in Chile, Chavez opened an official visit to Havana.

Rice declined to be drawn by the media into making Chavez a focus of her trip. She stuck tenaciously to her basic message: There is no better formula for confronting Latin America's myriad ills than free markets, free trade, development assistance in support of sound democratic governance and an end to corruption.

Rice's travels appeared to erase any doubts about the administration's ability to get along with the region's left-of-center governments -- a description that fits Brazil's and Chile's, among others.

Aides to Rice said her 30-minute meeting with Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was warm and friendly.

Rice told reporters after talks with Chile's president, Ricardo Lagos, that the region "has no better example" than Chile of a government that is providing opportunities for its people. Both Silva and Lagos earned their democratic stripes by opposing rightist military dictatorships.

Just before leaving Chile for El Salvador, the secretary said the United States "can have good relations with any state in the region that is democratically elected and that governs democratically, no matter where they come from in the political spectrum."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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