- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added a last-minute stop in Argentina on Monday as part of her Latin American tour this week, amid complaints that she was ignoring countries critical of U.S. policies in the region.

The State Department attributed the change to the difficulty of spending the night in Chile, as originally planned, because of the extensive damage caused by Saturday’s 8.8 magnitude earthquake there. Mrs. Clinton, who is bringing satellite telephone equipment to Chile, will make a brief stop in the capital, Santiago, Tuesday morning.

However, diplomats and analysts said, the choice of Argentina was no accident — but not only because of its proximity to Uruguay, where Mrs. Clinton was earlier in the day. Her initial decision to skip Argentina, which was fiercely defended by the Obama administration’s top official for Latin America on Friday, was criticized by Argentine and other officials.

“This is about damage control,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank. “And not only in Argentina but in the entire region. People are disappointed that Obama hasn’t paid as much attention to them as he promised and has continued [George W.] Bush’s policies.”

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One of the administration’s more outspoken critics has been Argentine President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, who met with Mrs. Clinton on Monday night. Last week, Mrs. Fernandez said “there were huge hopes for change in Latin America” when Mr. Obama took office, but the reality has been a “hard blow on those expectations.”

“No one expected a prince on a white horse, but there is a sense of missed opportunities,” she said in an interview with CNN.

Mrs. Fernandez also criticized Mr. Obama’s “weak” response to last year’s coup in Honduras, which ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Although the administration opposed the coup, the fact that the initial White House statement failed to condemn it was badly received in the region, Mr. Weisbrot said.

Washington also supported Honduras’ November elections, which Buenos Aires opposed, saying they were held under a dictatorship.

“We had a very frank exchange of views about our different perceptions of Honduras,” Mrs. Clinton said after meeting with Mrs. Fernandez. “I appreciated the opportunity to explain why we believe that the free and fair elections, which have elected the new president in Honduras, means its time to turn the page.”

Asked at a press conference why she changed her mind and decided to visit Argentina after all, she said only, “I’m very pleased that I had the opportunity for this meeting today.”

Mr. Bush was unpopular in most of Latin America, and many countries repeatedly complained that the United States was not treating them as equals during his presidency. As a candidate, Mr. Obama promised to change that.

“We want to have a whole new tone,” Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in December. “We want to re-engage with the hemisphere on the basis of mutual respect, of working together to solve common problems, where the United States is being a partner. We want to be able to listen.”

However, just days later, the Argentine government and media slammed Mr. Valenzuela for criticizing the country’s judicial system during a visit to Buenos Aires as not being secure enough to attract more foreign investors.

Mrs. Clinton will have to repair the damage done by those comments, Mr. Weisbrot said.

Argentine officials and media have also been critical of Washington’s refusal to back the country in its dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands in the southern Atlantic. Argentina has objected to a British company’s oil exploration in the Falklands, which was the reason for a 1982 war between the two countries won by Britain.

On Monday, Mrs. Clinton said the United States stood ready to help them resolve their dispute but will not take sides.

“We are not interested in and have no real role in determining what they decide between the two of them. But we want them talking and we want them trying to resolve the outstanding issues between them,” she said. “We recognize that there are contentious matters that have to be resolved and we hope that they will do so.”

The secretary’s trip is designed to show support for democratic rule and good governance by showcasing Latin America’s three most successful democracies — Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica — officials said. She will also visit Brazil and Guatemala.

Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that, after a strong focus on Latin America early last year, with visits by Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the administration directed its attention elsewhere, because it had “lots of fish to fry.”

The Senate’s failure to confirm Mr. Valenzuela in his post until November also gave the impression that Washington did not care much for the region, Mr. DeShazo and Mr. Weisbrot said. Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, put a hold on Mr. Valenzuela’s nomination in protest of the administration’s Honduras policy.

A third complicating factor in regional perceptions of the United States has been the Senate’s delay in approving trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, because of concerns that they would worsen the weak job market at home.

“The macro-orientation of U.S. policy toward Latin America has been remarkably consistent and bipartisan since the 1980s,” Mr. DeShazo said. “Its main pillars have been support for democracy, security issues like drugs and terrorism, and development and poverty reduction. The main difference was that, after Sept. 11, the Bush administration put a very strong focus on security.”

Mr. Weisbrot said a major development in Latin America that Washington has been slow to recognize is the increasing political independence of countries in the region. The United States still expects them “to go along with whatever it wants,” and they have come to resent that, he added.

For example, many of them insist on treating Venezuela and Bolivia as “normal countries” despite Washington’s poor relations with Presidents Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, Mr. Weisbrot said.

Last week, the countries of South and Central America and the Caribbean formed a new regional organization that specifically excluded the United States and Canada.

The region’s largest country, Brazil, also has disagreed publicly with the United States — most notably by opposing the West’s pursuit of new U.N. sanctions on Iran because of its failure to come clean on its nuclear program.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said last week that “peace in the world does not mean isolating someone.” Mr. Lula da Silva, who plans to visit Tehran in May, said he is “going to negotiate with Iran and sell things to Iran, so that Iran can also buy things from Brazil.”

Mr. Valenzuela told reporters at the State Department on Friday that Mrs. Clinton “will be telling” the Brazilians “to encourage Iran to regain the trust of the international community by fulfilling its international obligations, which we feel that they have not fulfilled.”

“If you don’t do that, then we will be disappointed,” he said. “If you do that, then I think that that will be an important step that they can take.”