- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

BRASILIA, Brazil Breakfast with Hugo Chavez, dinner with Fidel Castro.
The first day in office for Brazil's new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, projects the image of a leftist alliance in Latin America one that Mr. Chavez, Venezuela's president, has already nicknamed the "axis of good."
Such an alliance could hinder U.S. efforts to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas stretching from Alaska to the tip of Argentina by 2005.
Despite the perception of a new Latin American troika, doubts abound that Mr. Lula da Silva really wants to form a bloc with such close ties to Mr. Chavez and Mr. Castro, Cuba's leader.
But by giving Latin America's other two leftist leaders such a warm welcome a day after his inauguration, Mr. Lula da Silva gets huge political mileage in Brazil, where Mr. Castro and Mr. Chavez are revered by the far left of his party.
The United States sent Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick to the inauguration, seen by the Brazilians as something of a snub because Mr. Lula da Silva had called him "the subsecretary of a subsecretary of a subsecretary" during his election campaign.
At the breakfast meeting, Mr. Chavez asked Mr. Lula da Silva to send technical specialists from Brazil's state-owned oil company to replace some of the 30,000 Venezuelan state oil workers who have joined a crippling nationwide strike. Mr. Lula da Silva said he would consider the request.
And before dining last night with Mr. Lula da Silva, Mr. Castro told Associated Press Television News that Brazilian-Cuban relations will grow stronger now that Brazil has its first elected leftist president.
Mr. Castro and Mr. Chavez had front-row seats in Congress at Mr. Lula da Silva's inauguration Wednesday, where an estimated 200,000 Brazilians waved red flags. Many were dressed in red-and-white clothes, the colors of Mr. Lula da Silva's Workers Party.
The Cuban and Venezuelan leaders had dinner together, and talked until 4 a.m. yesterday at the Brasilia hotel where Mr. Castro is staying.
But experts said Mr. Lula da Silva's efforts to accommodate Mr. Castro and Mr. Chavez in Brasilia could be carefully calculated political window dressing.
Mr. Lula da Silva, 57, angered his party's left wing by appointing fiscal moderates to key Cabinet posts, but needs its help to push programs through Congress, where he lacks a majority.
"Embracing Castro and Chavez, the symbols of anti-U.S. influence in Latin America, gets Silva political capital in Brazil," said Stephen Haber, a Latin American specialist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "But this is a dangerous game. You go too far one way or the other and this will blow up in your face."
Mr. Chavez coined the "axis of good" term after Mr. Lula da Silva was elected in October, hailing the victory and saying Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba should team up to fight poverty.
But Brazilian political scientists dismissed the possibility of an "axis of good" being created by the meetings of Messrs. Lula da Silva, Castro and Chavez.
"There is no way this represents the beginning of Chavez' 'axis of good' and much less the 'axis of evil' imagined by right-wing Americans," said Luciano Dias, a political scientist at the Brasilia-based Brazilian Institute of Political Studies.

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