Benign neglect -- that's how many Latin American officials viewed U.S. policy toward their region during the first term of the Bush Administration, particularly after September 11, 2001. Now there's a feeling that Washington is realizing it needs to engage more actively with its southern neighbors. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently traveled to the region, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be heading out on a four-day swing through Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and El Salvador beginning on Apr. 26.
The key stopover will be Brasília, where Rice is to meet with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Washington wants to improve ties with the moderate leftist President for a host of reasons. Lula played a role in stymieing the Bush Administration's trade agenda in the first term, from talks on the Free Trade Area of the Americas to the Doha Round of global trade negotiations. And some in Washington are concerned about closer economic ties between Brazil and China, which is doing multibillion-dollar deals in the region. Lula himself has been wooing Chinese President Hu Jintao, as well as leaders in Russia, India, the Middle East, and Africa. "Brazil is turning increasingly to China as a trading partner," says Roger Leeds, a Latin America expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Above all, the Bush Administration hopes it can persuade Lula to help rein in what it sees as the region's most dangerous leader -- Venezuela's authoritarian President, Hugo Chávez. He has clamped down on democratic institutions at home -- from press freedom to judicial independence -- and Washington believes he is using his oil wealth to support insurgent groups in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. And while Venezuela is the No. 4 oil supplier to the U.S., Chávez plans to start selling some of that oil to China. "Venezuela is dividing the hemisphere," says Peter Hakim, president of Washington's Inter-American Dialogue.
But Rice will have to play her diplomatic cards carefully. The last thing Lula wants is to look like he's doing Washington's bidding. His Workers Party has plenty of anti-American followers. Even though Lula has implemented the kind of prudent economic policies advocated by Washington and has cordial personal relations with President George W. Bush, he is sure to keep pursuing his independent foreign policy. Lula plans to sell weapons to Chávez, as do Russia and Spain. Still, some think the Brazilian President can play a constructive role. "Lula has influence over Chávez and has been a moderating factor in U.S.-Venezuelan relations and on the continent," says Rubens Barbosa, former Brazilian ambassador to the U.S.
It would help if Rice cleared up Washington's mixed signals. The U.S. hasn't bolstered its case with Brazil by opposing its candidate to head the Organization of American States. Washington could also score points by backing Brasília's bid for a seat on an expanded U.N. Security Council. And trade issues are still a source of tension.
Both Brazil and the U.S. share an interest in promoting stability and democracy in Latin America. On her trip, Rice plans to join ministers from over 100 countries around the world in Chile to discuss democracy. All well and good. But forging a coherent policy toward Brasília and the region remains a challenge.
By Jonathan Wheatley in São Paulo, with Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady