New era beckons for U.S.-Latin America ties

RIO DE JANEIRO Mon Jul 13, 2009 2:24pm EDT

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - With a response to the Honduran crisis that has chimed with Latin American opinion and stressed dialogue, the United States has taken an important step toward a new era of warmer relations with the region.

It may be too soon yet to herald that era, as suspicion of U.S. motives remains strong in the region after eight years of the unpopular Bush administration and decades of perceived meddling by Washington. President Barack Obama is likely to face problems with more direct threats to U.S. interests than Honduras in a region where Washington has wide differences with a new breed of socialist leaders.

But the quick U.S. support for Honduran President Manuel Zelaya despite his leftist political stance has eased anger in Latin America at the perception it was either bullied over its politics or outright ignored by George W. Bush's government.

"The Obama administration was able to take advantage of this moment to show that this is not the Bush administration and this is a new era," said Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at Washington's Council on Foreign Relations.

It follows other signs of a new approach by Obama, who has shaken hands with Venezuelan President and U.S. foe Hugo Chavez, helped break a regional deadlock over communist Cuba and built a strong rapport with Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the moderate leftist president of the region's biggest economy.

Analysts said the Bush administration had been heading in a similar direction in its last two years, but bad blood had persisted over issues such as Washington's initial support for a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002.

"The legacy of the Bush administration is still so heavy and the agenda of the Obama administration is so extensive," said Robert Pastor, an international relations professor at Washington's American University and who was the top Latin America expert on the White House National Security Council from 1977-81.

"It will take some time before you can discern the differences in approaches which I think will be inevitable."

The U.S. response to the June 28 Honduras coup, in which it joined Latin American nations in condemning Zelaya's military overthrow, is widely seen as having drawn the sting from Chavez's attacks on U.S. "imperialist" policies in the region.

Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for foreign terrorism suspects and his pledge to withdraw from Iraq, reversing Bush policies that were major sources of anger in the region, should also make it easier for moderate governments to side with Washington.

Even moderate leaders in countries like Brazil and Chile had distanced themselves from the United States in recent years and expanded their ties with China and Europe.

Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said Obama's willingness to accept a compromise to allow Cuba back into the Organization of American States in June had shown a major difference in style and substance from the previous administration.

"I believe the approach of Obama is that the U.S. has to be in a listening position and in many instances in a learning position from the most successful democracies in the region," he said.

"In that sense we have room for positive development."

BRAZIL ROLE KEY

Despite winning plaudits for its approach on Honduras, the crisis is far from over and a failure to follow through on its support for Zelaya could yet divide the region. Conservatives in Washington have been critical of the backing for Zelaya.

"The disdain of U.S. foreign policy (for Central and South America) allowed Obama to pose as the good boy for now," Sergio Paulo Muniz Costa, a historian and former Brazil delegate on the Inter-American Defense Board, wrote in Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper on Friday.

"It won't let him hesitate to find friends and enemies when the vital interests of the country are threatened."

Although Chavez went quiet on the issue for days after initially bellicose comments, he has thrust himself back to center stage by saying that U.S.-backed crisis talks in Costa Rica were dead before they started and that the White House had made a "grave error" in calling for negotiations.

In his weekly television show on Sunday, Chavez blamed the "Yankee empire" for the Honduran crisis, and in typically blunt fashion, told the U.S. president to "stop your dithering," and do more to fix the problem.

Venezuela's foreign ministry called U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "crude and aggressive" last week after she insinuated in a television interview that Chavez had gathered too much power and was silencing critics.

Pastor said Obama's difficult challenge was to nurture better ties with countries on the left, many of whose policies were democratic and progressive, while dealing more firmly with leftist leaders who had "authoritarian tendencies."

"I don't know whether Obama can succeed in this because he cannot succeed unless Brazil takes some leadership on this issue -- they have been too quiet for too long," he said.

Lula has positioned Brazil as a mediator between Chavez and Washington, maintaining friendly ties with both, but rarely criticizes the socialist leader's policies or those of other radical leftists such as Bolivia's Evo Morales.

Lula was the first Latin American leader invited to the White House after Obama took office and the U.S. president has made it clear that he sees Brazil as the most important U.S. partner in the region.

He urged Lula this week to help convince Iran that it should keep its nuclear activities peaceful, signaling a desire to see Brazil to play a more active global role.

"Obama and Lula share some things like being transformative figures in their own national contexts," said Sotero. "I think there is a convergence there that is very interesting."

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Caracas; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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