- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo warned the United States yesterday to be wary of a lurch to the left in Latin America, and urged U.S. officials to take a more active role in securing a democratic future for its neighbors to the south.

“I think that the United States needs to be concerned. There has emerged a tendency of governments in Latin America to the populist left, and it’s because the single central issue in our region today is poverty,” Mr. Toledo said in an interview.

Mr. Toledo, an economist educated at Stanford University, said leftist leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have gained ground in Latin America because they “promise to give people fish instead of teaching them how to fish.”

He urged the United States to “take a closer look at what is happening in Latin America,” but said he trusted that the leaders of both the United States and South American countries would work to alleviate suffering in the region and establish a stronger democratic base.

Mr. Toledo said he had made economic development a major objective of his tenure, which ends later this month. This week, he met with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to encourage American backing of a free-trade agreement, which he said is vital to countering support for populist leaders in Latin America.

“We received very strong support from Secretary Gutierrez and President Bush, as well as both houses of Congress. It’s just a matter of making it final now,” Mr. Toledo said. The agreement has been ratified by the Peruvian government and now awaits approval in Congress.

Mr. Gutierrez agreed with Mr. Toledo that economic development is key to promoting democracy in Latin America.

“This positive agenda, including free-trade efforts with Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Colombia, are connecting economic reform with the strengthening of democracy, promoting rule of law, social justice, anti-corruption efforts and the expansion of freedom, offering a vision of hope and opportunity to the entire region,” Mr. Gutierrez said.

Nina Moorjani, press secretary at the Office of the United States Trade Representative, said a similar U.S. trade deal with Chile proved the point.

She said the free-trade agreement is “win-win” for both countries and a “valuable tool for increasing trade between the United States and Chile,” which created much-needed jobs in South America.

The State Department also noted that Mr. Toledo’s management of the Peruvian economy “led to an impressive economic boom.”

Despite the successes, more than half of Peru’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and more than 15 percent live on less than $1 a day.

As a result, last year Mr. Toledo’s approval rating dropped to 8 percent, the lowest rating of any South American leader, according to Angus Reid Consultants.

“People here need to see the interconnection between poverty and democratic government, how good policies can help create jobs for the greater benefit of the people,” said Mr. Toledo, who will give way to Alan Garcia on July 28.

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