Diplomatic imperative

April 28, 2005

SECRETARY OF State Condoleezza Rice's brief Latin America tour this week is timely. We hope it's an indication of renewed focus on a region experiencing growing discontent and popular uprisings that have toppled several democratically elected presidents and still threaten others.

Lucio Gutierrez, president of Ecuador and the most recent casualty of civil unrest, on Sunday fled to Brazil, where he was granted political asylum three days after being forced from power by a Congress under strong public pressure to oust him. Mr. Gutierrez, in office for just over two years, was the country's sixth president in 8 1/2 years.

The United States has wisely not formally recognized Mr. Gutierrez's replacement. Unfortunately, Ecuador is not on Ms. Rice's itinerary, which will take her to Brazil, Colombia, Chile and El Salvador. Also not on the list are Peru, Bolivia and Nicaragua, whose presidents are all under fire. Brazil and Colombia have been the beneficiaries of generous U.S. economic support - largely because of anti-terrorism measures. Both countries also have questionable human rights records, and while there, Ms. Rice should push for broad reform. When she returns, she should turn her attention to the other countries in our Southern Hemisphere that the Bush administration largely ignored in its first term.

Ms. Rice is still new to the job and deserves a chance to refocus the administration's attention, but she must be prompt and vigilant in making sure that the waning patience of Latin American citizens does not implode in a region that badly needs to remain stable after decades of civil wars and corrupt dictatorships. Ambassadors can only do so much, and American credibility will only go so far, without consistent and visible engagement.

Topping the list of priorities is Venezuela, where a short-lived 2002 coup temporarily unseated President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Chavez accused the Bush administration of fomenting and supporting the coup, and has been trading insults and allegations with the administration ever since. On Sunday, Mr. Chavez ended a military exchange and operations program it has conducted with the United States for 35 years, the latest slight directed at an administration that has repeatedly dismissed the left-leaning Mr. Chavez as a dictator posing as a democrat. Like him or not, the administration should find a way to deal with him. Ignoring him and calling him names, as Ms. Rice has done thus far, will not make him go away. It will only further isolate him and lessen the United States' ability to influence him or the Venezuelan people, many of whom support Mr. Chavez.

The lack of thoughtful diplomatic discourse serves neither country well, especially given the United States' reliance on Venezuelan oil and Mr. Chavez's courting of Cuba, Iran and China, which is cause for legitimate concern.

Latin America is calling. Ms. Rice should respond.

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