Clinton: U.S. critics losing force in Latin America

* Clinton cites Haiti, Honduras as success stories

* Says U.S. critics in region losing their audience

* Recognizes continued governance, economic problems

BUENOS AIRES, March 1 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday defended the Obama administration's approach to Latin America, saying it had helped to resolve crises in Honduras and Haiti and taken the teeth out of fierce criticism of U.S. policies by leftist leaders.

Clinton, speaking to reporters on the first day of a five-day Latin America tour which will take her to quake-hit Chile and regional heavyweight Brazil, said the United States had established "a firm foundation" with many of its southern neighbors.

"The number of leaders in the hemisphere who have taken pot shots at the United States are not finding much of an audience anymore, and I think that that shows that the way we're handling our engagement is being well received," Clinton said.

Clinton on Monday attended the same event as two of those critics -- Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's President Evo Morales -- as regional leaders gathered for the inauguration of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica. Clinton said she did not have any interaction with Chavez or Morales.

"I was in the balcony, they were on the floor. They went one way and I went the other way, but I would have been more than happy to say hello to everybody who was there," Clinton told reporters aboard her plane as it headed for Argentina.

Clinton's trip has been overshadowed by Saturday's earthquake in Chile, which killed more than 700 people. She was due to fly to Santiago on Tuesday for meetings with outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and incoming President Sebastian Pinera, as well as to deliver a shipment of cellphones that Chile had requested to help with quake relief.

She will then fly on to Brazil, where she will seek to rally a reluctant government to support international moves to impose new U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, before stopping in Costa Rica and Honduras.


Some Latin America analysts have said that early hopes in the region for warmer ties with the Obama administration had faded, undercut in part by what was perceived as a weak U.S. response to a coup in Honduras and the lack of major movement on the long-standing U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.

But Clinton said she believed ties had grown closer, and pointed to Honduras as one good result. In the wake of the coup, she pointed out, the United States helped to broker November elections that brought President Porfirio Lobo to power.

"The Honduras crisis has been managed to a successful conclusion," Clinton said.

"It was done without civil war, it was done without violence, and I think that our policy in the vast majority of countries in Latin America is either given high marks or great respect."

While Lobo's government is still not recognized by a number of countries in the region, she said she believed that during her two stops in Central America she would work to launch the "normalization process" between Lobo and other regional leaders and an end to Honduras' suspension by the Organization of American States.

She also hailed regional cooperation in the aftermath of January's catastrophic earthquake in Haiti -- saying the United States had worked to lead but not dominate the recovery effort.

"Haiti was a great outpouring of hemispheric support, but the leadership that the United States provided was absolutely critical," she said.

Clinton said the United States recognized continuing challenges in the region, including governance and economic problems that she said some governments were not doing enough to tackle. But she said she believed that overall the Obama administration had launched a new phase in U.S. ties with Latin America.

"It's a realistic and respectful relationship," she said.

Editing by Stacey Joyce