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Last Updated: Friday, 4 March 2005, 14:08 GMT
US unconcerned by left-wing leaders
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

There was a time when the United States foreign policy was largely driven by events in its own "backyard" of Latin America.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (left) and Hugo Chavez
Brazil's Lula da Silva and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez are part of the shift leftward

Not so long ago from Presidents Kennedy to Reagan, the US did everything in its power to stop the spread of communism from Cuba to the mainland.

Hence the US tolerance for various dictators and undemocratic regimes and damaging policies such as illegally aiding Nicaragua's contras by selling arms to Iran.

These days the Bush neo-cons - as opposed to those of the Reagan era - are more concerned about the Arab world, the Middle East, China and North Korea.

The left may be sweeping to electoral victory in Latin America - but that does not appear to be causing this Republican administrations much concern.

Lincoln Gordon, a former US ambassador to Brazil and now Brookings scholar, said he understood why the current administration is not paying much attention to Latin America.

"It doesn't have to," he said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been quick to embark on a fence mending tour of Europe and engage in the Middle East peace process, but she has yet to announce even a day trip to South America.

The election of President Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay was instead welcomed by the US state department which said that their relations were based on "shared values and mutual respect".

Pink rather than red

Communism is no longer the enemy. The Cold War has ended.

The new resurgence of the left in Latin America is an acceptable shade of pink rather than the deep scarlet of the "Evil Empire".

What's more President Bush can hardly criticise democratically elected governments.

How can you lecture the world about the importance of "liberty and freedom" and then turn round and say that the voters in Uruguay, Brazil and Ecuador have got it wrong?

Secondly, the US knows that even if some of Latin America's leaders have embraced anti-American rhetoric - such as President Lula of Brazil - the reality has been very different.

Much of poor Latin America relies on its rich northern neighbour for trade and economic assistance.

The US rewards those countries that pursue economic as well as democratic reforms - so it pays to be friendly.

Most Latin American governments continue to pursue policies that are favourable to US economic interests.

Why the US should be concerned

While most of Latin America's centre-left governments continue to have close relations with the United States, their people show a worrying dislike for the US.

The gap between the rich and the poor in the region is growing.

Many Latinos feel that the kind of market forces embraced by America have made their lot worse.

Fidel Castro at Monday's rally
Fidel Castro divides the left-leaning Latin Americans from the US
That is why anti-American rhetoric is successful for Latin America politicians even if it does not seem to have affected the policies that much.

Anti-American sentiment is most obvious in Venezuela.

In the past, President Hugo Chavez has courted countries which have attracted US disapproval such as Cuba, Iraq and Libya.

More recently he accused the Bush administration of trying to kill him - a claim dismissed by the US state department as "ridiculous and untrue".

Condoleezza Rice has described President Chavez as a "negative force" while the CIA chief Porter Goss said Venezuela was a possible source of instability in the region.

President Chavez has been heavy-handed towards Venezuela's opposition and has been buying arms from Russia - weapons that the US fears may up in the hands of guerrilla groups in the region.

However, the US continues to be its biggest customer for Venezuelan oil buying 1.5 million barrels a day.

Cuba, a source of tension

Most of Latin America's leftist leaders have one thing in common: support of and closer ties with Fidel Castro's Cuba.

That is a source of resentment in the US administration.

What happens when Castro's rule ends could increase tensions between the United States and its Latin American neighbours.

But for the time being that is a question that can wait.

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