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U.S. Challenges in South America

Prepared by: Mary Crane, Editorial Coordinator
March 10, 2006

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes leave this week to attend the March 12 inauguration of Chile's socialist president-elect, Michelle Bachelet, the country's first woman president (CSMonitor). In Chile, Rice will meet with a number of Latin American leaders (Reuters), including Bolivia's newly elected president, Evo Morales. The Bolivian leader boasts of his close ties with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and communist Cuba and describes himself as a "nightmare" for Washington. Hughes will continue on to Brazil, Colombia, Panama, and El Salvador.

The trip comes at a time when U.S.-South American relations have hit new lows, experts say. Anti-American rhetoric abounds (WashPost) , support for democratic rule is lower than it was ten years ago (Economist), and U.S. policies remain hugely unpopular (Zogby). Further underscoring the discontent, a new World Bank report says one-quarter of all Latin Americans suffer from the highest measures of inequality in the world. In Chile, Rice and Hughes will also have to contend with the memory of U.S. policies throughout South America that supported brutal regimes like the Washington-backed military junta that tortured and exiled Bachelet in her youth, writes the Chicago Tribune.

After largely ignoring South America since 9/11, the costs of years of estrangement between the United States and South America could "be high for both sides," Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, writes in Foreign Affairs. Added to these are the twelve South American elections scheduled for 2006, outlined by the BBC, which are expected to shift politics to the left across a region on which the United States depends for a large share of its energy imports, as Sidney Weintraub of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes. Newly elected leaders like Bolivia's Evo Morales and longtime Washington foes like Hugo Chavez are ready and able to capitalize on South America's frustration with the United States, experts say. The next major vote will be in Peru April 9. The elections, discussed in this CFR Background Q&A, could be a major litmus test for regional politics.

But CFR Fellow Julia Sweig, in an interview with cfr.org, says there is hope yet for U.S.-South American relations. The South American elections, she says, "are not a rejection of the market," but instead, "they're a statement that the existing institutions and the traditional elites cannot deliver." In a State Department press briefing this week, Rice said "the United States has no trouble, no difficulty, dealing with countries from either side of the political spectrum," citing Chile and Brazil as left-of-center governments that have good ties with Washington. The Center for American Progress offers a summary of a meeting on the challenges to democratic governance in Latin America and the UN Development Program reports on democracy in Latin America.

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