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US Official in South America to Discuss Trade, Drug Trafficking

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich, is in economically troubled South America to demonstrate continuing U.S. interest in the region. High on the agenda for his visit is trade protectionism and the war on illicit drug trafficking.

Mr. Reich comes to a region that feels neglected by the United States. Brazil-based political scientist David Fleischer sees Washington's preoccupation with the war on terrorism as the main reason why the Bush administration is paying less attention to Latin America than previous U.S. administrations.

"I think one of the reasons is 9/11 that the Bush government got a little bit distracted and detoured after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The other is a problem seeing interests that can be attended to in Latin America. Bill Clinton, of course, gave a lot more attention to Latin America; even George Bush's father did as well. But I think the Bush administration is more interested in other issues, such as the national security question and dealing with Western Europe, and Latin America is not all that important on their screen of priorities," Mr. Fleischer said.

In commentary published in a Brazilian newspaper, Mr. Reich said he is well aware of the feeling, but asserts his trip demonstrates Washington's continued engagement in the Southern Hemisphere.

During his talks with cabinet ministers in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, Monday and Tuesday, Mr. Reich stressed the need to fight regional drug trafficking. He said narco-terrorists in Colombia are a menace to the whole hemisphere.

His discussions in Brasilia also highlighted several simmering trade disputes between the United States and Brazil. The government is upset about hefty U.S. tariffs on imported steel and billions of dollars in subsidies to American farmers. Both, the government said, hurt Brazilian exports at a time the country's economy is struggling.

Mr. Reich says the Free Trade Area of the Americas which is expected to become reality in 2005, would be the forum to solve those issues.

However, Brazil's minister of agriculture, Pratini de Morais, said the United States must first prove the free trade area will be beneficial to all countries. He said Brazil wants the United States to open up to more Brazilian imports, especially cattle and ethanol.

"We must build roads to prepare for the free trade area. If Americans are willing to talk with us about opening up more to our cattle exports and ethanol, which is a product they need and which Brazil produces in massive quantity it will be a sign they are ready to negotiate," Mr. de Morais said.

The U.S. envoy has left for Argentina to discuss ways of helping the country cope with its economic crisis before going to Uruguay.