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Rice Says US Has No Bias Against Latin American Leftists

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress Thursday the Bush administration has no problem per se with elected leftist leaders in Latin America but is concerned about the behavior of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Rice leaves Friday for Chile to attend the inauguration of the country's left-of-center president-elect Michelle Bachelet.

The Secretary of State is rejecting the notion the Bush administration is inclined against leftist leaders in the Hemisphere, and says the United States is prepared to have good relations with elected politicians from either side of the political spectrum, provided they govern democratically.

Rice made the comments in an appearance Thursday before a House Appropriations subcommittee on the eve of her departure for Chile and the inauguration Saturday of president-elect Bachelet.

Democratic House member Jose Serrano of New York suggested the administration has a double standard, readily dealing with countries with less than democratic systems, such as China and Egypt, but spurning democratically elected Latin American leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and the new Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Secretary Rice said the United States has no problem with elected leaders in the region who are left-of-center, citing what she said is the United States' excellent relationship with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

She also said the United States is reaching out to Mr. Morales in Bolivia and expects to have a good relationship with him as well.

The Secretary said the United States had similar intentions with regard to Mr. Chavez in Venezuela and said issue with him is behavior-based and not personal, citing moves by his government to curb the political opposition.

"Governments from left of center are just fine, as long as they are governing democratically," said Condoleezza Rice. "And the issues with Venezuela have been more on that line, questions of what is happening to the church in Venezuela, questions of what is happening to the ability of the opposition to operate in Venezuela, the trial of the Sumate activists - a non-governmental organization which has been put on trial by the government, issues with trade unions that have recently arisen concerning the truckers' strike."

Congressman Serrano, who has been a critic of Bush administration policy toward Latin America, said he himself has urged Hugo Chavez to lower his rhetoric. He said U.S. officials should try to understand the motives of a new generation of Latin American leaders, some from impoverished backgrounds and with indigenous roots.

"The big change in Latin America is that people are beginning to elect people who look like themselves," said Jose Serrano. "And that's true. And with that comes at times, I believe, some behavior and rhetoric that we may not like. Because some of the folks who are being elected are people who were dirt-poor in their childhood and now see a need, or have the opportunity to make some serious changes in Latin America. And we seem to disagree with their rhetoric, and I think spend a lot of time trying to perhaps even destabilize them."

Secretary Rice said U.S. officials perhaps have not spoken enough about poverty-alleviation, health care and the rights of indigenous people in the region, but said administration policy emphasizes both the need to generate economic growth and to address social ills.

The Secretary is expected to have bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the Chilean inaugural events, with among others Ms. Bachelet, Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, and Bolivian President Morales.

The visit to Chile is part of an overseas trip that will also take her to Indonesia and Australia.