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Analysts: South America's Leftist Leaders Often Speak as Ideologues, Act as Pragmatists

Uruguay has become the latest in a string of South American nations to swear in a socialist or left-leaning president. But while many of today's leaders in the region profess socialist ideals and have pursued closer ties to Fidel Castro's Cuba, they have not opted to follow the Cuban model and have worked quietly to maintain a friendly posture to foreign business interests.

Pledging to defend the constitution and work for the people's happiness, Uruguay's first socialist president was sworn in March 1. Tabare Vazquez promptly unveiled an anti-poverty program for his nation and restored full diplomatic relations with communist Cuba.

"It is good that fraternal nations are united. In the name of the Uruguayan people, I am pleased to welcome the Cuban people, once again, in this house to strengthen the relationship and friendship that never should have been broken," he said.

"Uruguay can count on the Cuban revolution and the people of Cuba forever," said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, who was appearing at the Uruguayan leader's side.

Uruguay is but the latest South American nation to elect a left-leaning leader, joining Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela. If the 1990s was an era of free-market reforms implemented by governments eager to trumpet closer ties with Washington, the new millennium has seen a reversal of the trend. No longer do the region's leaders speak of the privatization of government assets, except to lambaste what most regard as a failed experiment foisted on them by the International Monetary Fund and the United States. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other leaders have been blunt in their criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and have placed an emphasis on strengthening regional trade over a hemisphere-wide pact that would include the United States.

The director of Western Hemisphere Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Riordan Roett, says the ascendancy of left-of-center leaders in South America is no accident.

"I think there is a trend with two components. One is the failure of the so-called 'Washington consensus' to bring economic growth and distribution during the 1990s. Second, from the point of view of the average Latin American, therefore, the traditional political parties that were in control of the economy during the '90s have failed. And therefore there is a search for new representation, and new economic and social models in all of these countries," he said.

But despite being swept to power on socialist rhetoric, President Lula da Silva and other South American leaders have surprised critics and angered core supporters by setting aside radical notions of massive state intervention in the economy. Professor Roett says today's South American governments want to be seen as business-friendly, but with a stronger emphasis on helping the poor and disadvantaged.

"They are less socialist than they are - not necessarily anti-market, but pro-people, pro-social distribution, pro-reducing income inequality, more for social justice. But in a relatively open-market framework, because this new generation understands perfectly well how the market operates," he said.

Even the man seen as South America's fiercest disciple of socialism, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, says his fellow-South American leaders are bound by pragmatism, not ideology. "A good team [of regional leaders] is being organized. I would not say an ideological group, but a group of progressive people who are sympathetic to the needs of the people. This is what really matters," Mr. Chavez told reporters at the Vazquez inauguration in Montevideo.

Analysts say the embrace of Cuba by Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and other nations in the region plays to the hard-line leftist elements within their leaders' respective political parties and coalitions, but in no way signifies a wish to emulate the Cuban communist model.

At the State Department Thursday, spokesman Richard Boucher was asked about U.S. relations with Uruguay's new government, as well as other left-of-center governments in the region. "We will have to see how our relationship evolves. Certainly we look forward to working with all countries in the hemisphere on important issues," he said.

Mr. Boucher did not elaborate. But observers say Washington's wait-and-see approach is likely to be mirrored by President Vazquez and other leaders in the region.