(Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip to South America will seek both to bolster the Obama administration’s sagging image in the region and rally support for a key diplomatic goal on Iran.
Clinton’s February 28-March 5 trip also includes two final stops in Central America, which is still grappling with the aftermath of a coup in Honduras last year that shook faith in the region’s recent political gains.
These are the key points of Clinton’s itinerary:
URUGUAY - Clinton begins in Uruguay, where she will attend the March 1 inauguration of incoming President Jose Mujica.
While Mujica was a member of a leftist urban guerrilla group in the 1960s and early 1970s, his victory in last year’s polls was seen as a successful referendum on the economic successes of Uruguay’s center-left coalition as well as a testament to its stable politics.
Uruguay has good relations with Washington — former President George W. Bush visited in 2007 — and Mujica’s predecessor expressed interest in a free trade pact with the United States.
CHILE - Clinton is then due to fly to Chile’s capital Santiago, although U.S. officials said they were assessing the situation after Saturday’s huge earthquake — a hint the stop could be postponed if Chilean officials are too busy with disaster relief efforts.
Clinton’s schedule features March 2 meetings with both outgoing President Michelle Bachelet and President-elect Sebastian Pinera, a conservative billionaire whose election closed 20 years of center-left rule since the end of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
The United States is Chile’s largest trading partner, but has lost ground in recent years to China which is hungry for Chilean copper exports.
Pinera, a Harvard-educated airline magnate, is expected to maintain warm ties with the United States and economic policies that have given Chile the highest standard of living in Latin America.
BRAZIL - Clinton’s March 3 visit to Brazil marks the center point of the trip, and carries the most diplomatic heft.
A fast-emerging regional power with global aspirations, Brazil represents the first real counterweight to Washington in the Western Hemisphere and relations between the two have not always been smooth.
Brazil is currently a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and Clinton is expected to press President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to support new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, which Brazil has been reluctant to do.
The two countries also found themselves at odds over the response to the coup in Honduras, and are engaged in a dispute at the World Trade Organization over U.S. cotton subsidies.
Brazil also wants the Obama administration to end the 48-year old U.S. economic embargo on Cuba — a call Clinton is likely to hear on other stops on her trip.
Despite this, political analysts see the United States and Brazil as natural partners in the hemisphere, as was demonstrated by their coordinated response to last month’s Haitian earthquake disaster.
Lula, one of the first heads of state to visit Washington after Obama’s inauguration last year, developed an easy rapport with the U.S. president that may help to promote deeper diplomatic cooperation.
COSTA RICA - Clinton will continue to Costa Rica, where on March 4 she will be the keynote speaker at a meeting of “Pathways to Prosperity” — a U.S.-backed initiative billed as a way for regional trade partners to consolidate economic gains and spread economic benefit.
Clinton will also meet retiring President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker who played a central role in negotiations following the June 28 coup in Honduras, as well as incoming President Laura Chinchilla, an Arias protege who stands to become the country’s first woman leader.
GUATEMALA - Clinton will conclude her trip with a stop in Guatemala on March 5, where U.S. officials say she hopes to meet both President Alvaro Colom as well as leaders of other regional countries to discuss issues including Haiti.
Among those present will be new Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, who was elected in November after the coup against former President Manuel Zelaya but whose government has still not been recognized by several major regional countries including Canada, Mexico and Brazil.
Reporting by Reuters bureaux in Latin America and Washington, writing by Andrew Quinn, editing by Patricia Wilson