- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

BUENOS AIRES — Bush administration officials will be looking for signs at a White House meeting with Alan Garcia today that Peru’s new leader can help check the rising regional power of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

There has been little affection between Mr. Garcia and his Venezuelan counterpart — who just last month compared President Bush to the devil — since the two engaged in a caustic diplomatic spat earlier this year.

Insults were exchanged and ambassadors withdrawn after Mr. Chavez publicly backed Mr. Garcia’s rival in the June presidential run-off against ultraleftist former Lt. Col. Ollanta Humala.

During the campaign, Mr. Chavez called Mr. Garcia a “rogue,” a “cheat” and a “thief.” But Mr. Garcia was able to turn the Venezuelan’s support for Mr. Humala into a campaign issue, helping to ensure his victory.

Peru has “defeated the efforts by Mr. Hugo Chavez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America,” Mr. Garcia said on election day. “Today, Peru has said no.”

Since then, however, Mr. Garcia has expressed no interest in spearheading an effort to contain the Venezuelan firebrand, who is using his county’s ample oil revenue to buy arms and influence throughout the region.

“I hope to strengthen good relations with respect with Venezuela, Mr. Garcia said in June. “I insist on respect, and we are not interested in leading a continental anti-Chavez movement.”

Mr. Chavez, for his part, has largely rebuffed Mr. Garcia’s attempt at rapprochement. “Forget? Not me,” he said last month. “Even if there is no dignity [in Peru], there is dignity here.”

Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Garcia Belaunde told the Dow Jones news service last week: “There won’t be any more initiatives to restore closer ties. We have made it clear that we have turned a page. Alan Garcia has said he was ready to talk to Chavez, but there was no response. It takes two to tango.”

David Scott Palmer, a political science professor at Boston University, said he thinks Mr. Garcia would like to be considered the leader of the anti-Chavez forces in Latin America.

“I believe he is well positioned to become the de facto leader of the moderate Latin American alternative [to Mr. Chavez and his allies] but without the stridency associated with current U.S. policy toward Venezuela,” Mr. Palmer said.

But Cynthia McClintock, a political scientist at George Washington University, said Mr. Garcia and his party share a “social democratic tradition that emphasizes strong alliances among the Latin American countries.”

“I don’t think Mr. Garcia will leap too far in front of his neighbors on this issue,” she said.

Veteran Peruvian journalist Manuel Orbegozo said Mr. Garcia will be more interested in talking about drugs and trade at the White House meeting today.

Washington provides Peru with funds to combat organized cocaine-making operations that have moved into the country from neighboring Colombia.

A U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement, supported by Mr. Garcia, has received legislative approval in Peru but awaits ratification by the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Garcia’s first presidential term was widely seen as a disastrous period marked by hyperinflation, populist rhetoric, state control of the banking industry and a controversial default on debt payments to Washington.


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