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U.S. diplomacy stumbles in Latin America

Just eight months ago, President Obama was calling Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva “my man” and suggesting that the South American country could become a leading U.S. partner in the region.

Since then, Brazil has criticized the U.S. approach to the coup in Honduras and warned the United States over plans to expand its military presence in Colombia.

U.S. officials, for their part, have complained about Lula’s increasing efforts to form economic and political ties with a leading American adversary, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Stop punishing him,” Lula shot back a few months ago.

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The differences with Brazil underscore how the Obama administration’s Latin American relations have become marred by tensions and suspicions.

Polls indicate that Obama remains highly popular with Latin Americans, but his administration’s relationship with some regional governments has been tested by a series of developments. Those include the June 28 military coup that toppled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, a deal with Colombia giving the Pentagon use of seven bases for flights to combat drug trafficking and insurgency, stalled free trade deals, and Iran’s growing ties with Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia, among other Latin American countries.

Another area of tension is the anti-drug fight. Although U.S.-Mexican cooperation remains broad, Central American and Caribbean countries are increasingly complaining that they receive less help than they need, and there are growing cries for the United States to do more to lessen demand at home, said Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank that specializes in Latin American issues.

Latin American leaders who hoped to move up the U.S. priority list have discovered that the new president, like his less popular predecessor, has most of his foreign policy attention focused elsewhere -- namely Afghanistan and Iraq.

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“The administration created expectations that were enormous, but sooner or later reality was going to catch up,” said Juan Carlos Hidalgo of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. “That’s what happened.”

It was always probable that the Obama administration would come into conflict with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the allied left-leaning governments of Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador. After some early praise, Chavez has been critical of Obama, declaring recently, in a message carried by state media, “the Obama illusion is over.”

But the United States has had differences with governments closer to the center, too. These nations have been pleased with Obama’s calls for closer consultation, and his moves to wind down the U.S. mission in Iraq -- a major element in the hemisphere’s unhappiness with President George W. Bush.

But many governments were unimpressed with U.S. efforts to negotiate Zelaya’s reinstatement in Honduras.

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Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and others have refused, despite U.S. urging, to recognize the Nov. 30 presidential election won by wealthy rancher Porfirio Lobo. The governments contend that supporting the new Honduran leadership could encourage coups in other countries.

In early December, the Honduran Congress voted that the coup that deposed Zelaya should stand, favoring a motion against reinstatement by a vote of 111 to 14.

A senior administration official, who asked to remain unidentified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that “there is more consensus on the future of Honduras than it appears.” He said he believes many countries share the view that the new Honduran government should include officials from both ideological poles, and expressed optimism that such a unity slate would be organized.

Another divisive issue is the 10-year deal signed Oct. 31 involving the bases in Colombia. Though it won’t increase the number of U.S. personnel in the country, it raised fears even among U.S. allies Chile and Brazil that the American military presence might spill over Colombia’s borders. Lula asked for assurances that U.S. forces would stay put.

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In the case of Cuba, the Obama administration eased its opposition to the country’s entry into the Organization of American States and made a limited gesture toward normalizing relations by reducing restrictions on Cuban Americans’ travel to the island.

The consensus in Latin America calls for a complete lifting of the long-standing economic embargo.

“The general reaction was that it was too little,” Hidalgo said.

The U.S. official said Latin American leaders have been sympathetic to Obama, recognizing “the enormous challenges this president faces, including the worst recession since the ‘30s.”

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Peter DeShazo, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said many of the core U.S. goals would be unchanged -- increasing security cooperation, trying to reform governments, fighting poverty and developing economies.

“There will be greater continuity than a lot of people expected,” he said.

“Those who expected a sea change were misleading themselves.”

paul.richter@latimes.com

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