Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Chile for the inauguration of the South American country's president-elect Michelle Bachelet. On the sidelines of the inaugural events, Rice will meet other regional leaders including Bolivia's new leftist President Evo Morales.
The Rice visit is aimed at underscoring the Bush administration's stated commitment to good relations with the growing number of left-of-center governments in Latin America, including that of Ms. Bachelet, who will become Chile's first woman president.
Despite its decades-old feud with Cuban President Fidel Castro and recent sharp exchanges with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Secretary Rice says the United States has no problem with leftist governments, provided they govern democratically.
She will underline that intention with bilateral meetings in Chile with Ms. Bachelet, Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, and with Bolivian President Morales, a former coca growers association chief who, when he took office in January, said he would be a nightmare for U.S. policy makers.
Ms. Bachelet's father, a Chilean general, was jailed for opposing the 1973 military coup by Augusto Pinochet, and the president-elected was jailed and tortured during the 17-year dictatorship.
In an in-flight talk with reporters en route to Chile, Secretary Rice called the election of Ms. Bachelet a story of tragedy and then triumph, and a symbol of what the Chilean people have gone through to get democracy.
She side-stepped a reporters' question about whether the United States regretted its relations with the Pinochet regime, but said the United States helped Chileans restore civilian rule and that both countries have put the past behind them.
"There have been people who have had to struggle and who have suffered tragedy in order to make that possible," she said. "I think that is an important message that the United States understands that this journey for Chile was a difficult one. But it has been now quite a long time, and I hope we have been able to put that history behind us."
The secretary of state will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet Bolivia's President Morales, though President Bush telephoned him to congratulate him on his election.
Though Mr. Morales has said he wants to legalize the growing of coca, the base ingredient for cocaine, the secretary said he has also spoken of security problems posed by the illegal drug trade and that this is a starting point for discussion.
She said Mr. Morales is from modest means and one of a number of people of indigenous Indian extraction now coming into government in Latin America, a trend she said is a good thing.
The secretary of state has no meeting planned with Venezuelan President Chavez, with whom she has sparred verbally in recent months, and who will also be attending the inaugural events in the Chilean coastal city of Valparaiso.
But U.S. officials said she would be courteous to Mr. Chavez if she encountered him in a social setting.
Secretary Rice told congressmen her concerns about Mr. Chavez are behavior-based and stem from his moves to curb the political opposition, non-governmental and church groups.
The same day, the Chavez government angrily rejected criticism of Venezuela in the State Department's annual global human-rights report, with the country's vice president, Vicente Rangel, calling the document "toilet paper".