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Rice Visits El Salvador After Helping Settle OAS Impasse

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ended a four-nation Latin American tour late Friday with talks with El Salvador's President Antonio Saca. Earlier in the day in Chile, Ms. Rice helped broker an agreement ending the political impasse over selecting a new Organization of American States Secretary-General.

Ms. Rice had been holding direct and telephone consultations with OAS foreign minister colleagues on the election stalemate throughout her Latin American mission, which also took her to Brazil, Colombia and Chile.

Announcement of the breakthrough came at a surprise news conference Friday on the sidelines of the Community of Democracies meeting in Santiago.

Under an arrangement that U.S. officials said was brokered by the Secretary of State, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, who had been backed by the United States for OAS chief, dropped out of the race in favor of Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza.

Mr. Insulza is expected to be unanimously elected Secretary-General when the OAS convenes again Monday at its Washington headquarters.

In a statement in Santiago, Mr. Insulza said his goals will be to strengthen, protect and promote democracy in the hemisphere, this at a time when democratic rule in some member states, notably Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, is under strain.

The political deadlock between Mexican and Chilean candidates had raised the prospect of a north-south split in the OAS pitting Central American and Caribbean member states closely aligned with the United States against left-leaning South American governments.

However in an airborne news conference en route to El Salvador, Secretary Rice said in the final OAS deliberations, the focus was not on ideology but on the need for consensus to advance the important work of the OAS.

She said both contenders for the OAS job were fine candidates and that the United States wants to work with hemispheric democracies regardless of their political leanings. "Governments that are democratically-elected and govern democratically are going to be respected by the United States and are going to be partners of the United States. This is not a matter of ideology. We can work across the spectrum. Look at Chile. This is a left-of-center government. Brazil: we have increasingly very good relations with. So I think this is not a matter of ideology," she said.

The candidacy of Mr. Insulza, a former Chilean foreign minister, had been strongly supported by populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an antagonist of the Bush administration.

But a U.S. diplomat who briefed reporters said the Chileans were mystified by Mr. Chavez' support for their candidate.

The U.S. diplomat noted the consensus agreement on Mr. Insulza came on a day that President Chavez was in Havana meeting with his Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro, the region's only dictator, the official said, and Mr. Chavez' best friend.

In a stop in El Salvador, abbreviated because of the overtime diplomacy in Santiago, Ms. Rice paid tribute to the Central American state for its 380 soldier contribution to the U.S. led coalition in Iraq, and democratic emergence after a brutal civil war in the 1980s.

At a joint news conference with Salvadoran President Saca, Ms. Rice promised the Bush administration will push hard for approval of the proposed U.S.-Central America free trade agreement, which faces an uncertain future in the Congress.

She also said President Bush is committed to seeking humane reform of U.S. immigration law, including a temporary worker program.

Remittances from hundreds of thousands of undocumented Salvadoran working in the United States is a major prop for the Central American country's economy.