Secretary of State Colin Powell begins a three-day Latin American trip Sunday. He flies to the Chilean capital, Santiago, to attend a meeting of Organization of American States foreign ministers, and he visits Buenos Aires for talks Tuesday with Argentine officials, including newly-inaugurated President Nestor Kirchner.
Officials here insist the Bush administration has not been neglecting Latin America, despite its recent preoccupation with Iraq and the Middle East dispute.
But they nonetheless say the Powell trip begins an "intensified U.S. focus" on the region that also included Friday's conclusion in Miami of the long-awaited U.S.-Chilean free trade agreement.
The deal, the product of 11 years of negotiations, is seen as a prelude to an envisaged hemispheric free-trade regime, and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it sets the tone for the Powell mission and the annual OAS General Assembly in Santiago.
"It's good for both the U.S. and Chile, but it's also good for the hemisphere," he said. "So, as we go to these meetings down there, I'm sure we'll talk about relations between our governments, issues of democracy, issues of free trade, issues of progress in the hemisphere."
Chile and Mexico opposed the use of force against Iraq in the U.N. Security Council in March. But a senior U-S official said Mr. Powell does not intend to revive disagreements over the Iraq war, saying there will be a constructive agenda on other issues.
The senior official said the Santiago meeting will have a largely-economic focus, with a hope that severe recessions in key member countries, including Argentina and Peru, have begun to "bottom out."
The ministers are expected to approve a plan for a special OAS summit in Mexico late this year, aimed at promoting economic growth and wider distribution of wealth through good governance and open markets.
The official said the talks will include the political crises in Venezuela and Haiti, and that a joint appeal to Haitian authorities is likely, calling on them to heed an OAS resolution last year, and lay groundwork for free and fair elections.
The United States has been bitterly critical of Cuba's recent crackdown on dissidents. But it will not raise the issue formally at the Santiago meeting, in deference to Caribbean OAS members, who say it should not be on the agenda, as long as Cuba's four-decade-long suspension from the organization continues.
Mr. Powell will have a number of bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the OAS assembly. And he stops in Buenos Aires Tuesday, before his return home, for the Bush administration's first senior-level meeting with Argentina's new populist president, Nestor Kirchner, who was sworn into office May 25.