March 9, 2006

Rice heads to Latam to improve US standing

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice heads to Chile on Friday for the inauguration of its first
woman president, in a region where Washington has dwindling
allies and leftist leaders are on the rise.

During her two-day trip to Chile, Rice will hold a host of
meetings with Latin American leaders, including Bolivia's
President Evo Morales, a coca farmer with close ties to
communist Cuba and Venezuela who has described himself as a
"nightmare" for Washington.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is off the list of
intended meetings for Rice, unless the two have a chance
encounter at functions planned for the inauguration on Saturday
of Chile's new president, Michelle Bachelet.

Latin American experts suggested Rice should use this trip
to improve U.S. standing in the region where many say the
United States is out of touch and to move the focus away from
Venezuela-U.S. tensions.

Outgoing Chilean president Ricardo Lagos said last month
the United States and Venezuela should tone down their
rhetorical outbursts to improve hemispheric relations.

"Rice has an enormous task to repair the present disarray
in which we find U.S.-Latin American relations," said Larry
Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal

Part of the problem, said Birns, was that the United States
viewed Latin America through the prism of Cuba and Venezuela,
adding that if it was Rice's goals to win support among Latin
American leaders to isolate Chavez, she would be disappointed.

"He (Chavez) is popular because he needles the United
States and he talks like the average Latin American would
talk," said Birns.


Several experts said a meeting between Rice and Morales
would help improve Washington's image in the region.

"It will have a tremendous symbolic value that the United
States is interested in having relations with the first
indigenous president of a very poor country," said Peter Hakim
of the think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.

Chilean analyst Patricio Navia said Rice's attendance at
Bachelet's inauguration was important as Chile was one of
Washington's best friends in the area and Rice could use the
time to rebuild relations with others.

"Most understand that good relations with the United States
are very important," said Navia, a political scientist at New
York University and Chile's Diego Portales University.

Much of Latin America is under leftist leadership, posing a
dilemma for Washington and its democracy agenda.

Julia Sweig, a Latin American expert at the Council on
Foreign Relations, said there was strong suspicion among many
Latin American leaders over the U.S. democracy agenda.

"Democracy ought to be America's greatest strength but when
the U.S. says democracy they (Latin American leaders) see
empire and imperialism," said Sweig.

She advised Rice to "moderate her language" and make clear
the United States did not have a problem with leftist leaders
coming to power.

One area where there was also suspicion was Washington's
own handling of human rights issues, particularly following the
abuse by U.S. soldiers of prisoners in Iraq and detainees held
at a U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"All of a sudden, Latin America is saying that the U.S. is
not playing by the same rules as everyone else and this
provokes an underlying distrust of the U.S.," said Hakim.