Charm offensive

March 15, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent outreach to leftist Latin American leaders was a wise move at a time many of those political leaders are increasingly resisting Washington's regional policy goals.

Ms. Rice's latest remarks indicating the Bush administration's willingness to work with newly elected, left-leaning presidents signals Washington's acceptance of Latin America's changing political dynamics. It also suggests awareness by the administration, after several early stumbles, that trying to isolate popular leaders with political views it opposes is more likely to further weaken U.S. credibility in the region.

"The United States has no trouble, no difficulty, dealing with countries from either side of the political spectrum," Ms. Rice said last week before heading to Chile for the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet, the new socialist president. While there, Ms. Rice also met with Evo Morales, the new leftist president of Bolivia, who had promised to be "a nightmare" for the Bush administration. Mr. Morales' coziness with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba has worried administration officials. By engaging Mr. Morales, whose country relies heavily on U.S. financial aid, Washington has a better chance of moderating his support for leaders the administration considers dictators.

Ms. Rice also indicated the U.S. might resume military assistance to some Latin American countries barred for refusing to exempt Americans from being tried by the International Criminal Court. This is a smart diplomatic calculation that could soften perceptions of American arrogance and hypocritical foreign-policymaking.

Just last month, Ms. Rice was touting her "inoculation strategy" to get regional allies to support the administration's campaign to isolate Mr. Chavez. Better to give a booster shot to U.S.-Latin American relations and bolster administration influence in the region.

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