U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Congressional testimony on Thursday, expressed deep regret over the death of jailed Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and welcomed an Organization of American States report critical of Venezuela's human rights record. Clinton leaves Washington for Uruguay on Sunday to begin a five-nation Latin America trip.  

Clinton's plan to attend Monday's inauguration of Uruguayan President-elect Jose Mujica, a former 1970s urban guerrilla, underscores the Obama administration's efforts to reach out to left-leaning Latin American governments.

But in Congressional testimony on Thursday, Clinton reiterated sharp U.S. criticism of the region's only communist government, Cuba, after the death in custody this week of leading Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

"We send our condolences to his family and we also reiterate our strong objection to the actions of the Cuban government.  This is a prisoner of conscience who was imprisoned for years for speaking his mind, for seeking democracy, for standing on the side of values that are universal, who engaged in a hunger strike.  The United States government consistently requested that be given medical assistance.  And unfortunately, he paid for his courage and his commitment with his life," he said.

Clinton said Zapata, who had been jailed since a roundup of dissidents in 2003, was among more than 200 Cuban political prisoners.  She said the United States will apply "consistent pressure" for their release.

Under questioning by the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, the secretary of state welcomed a report by the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that is sharply critical of the human rights record of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Clinton said she agreed with committee members on the need to stand up against what she said was Mr. Chavez's "attack on democracy" and said she was pleased to see the OAS panel "finally come out and criticize" the Caracas government.

In a talk with reporters, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Mr. Chavez will not be among several Latin American leaders with whom Clinton will hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the inauguration ceremonies in Montevideo.

He said the United States has normal relations with Venezuela through its embassy in Caracas.  But he said the Chavez government will have to alter its behavior, if there is to be high-level dialogue. "We are engaged with that country.  But if President Chavez is seeking to have engagement at a higher level, I think we are open to that in theory.  But it has to be grounded in a willingness of both countries  to pay a constructive role in the region.  And I think that when we look throughout the region, Venezuela is increasingly the outlier.  And they are playing a less than constructive role and so one has to have a basis on which you can have meaningful dialogue," he said.

After Uruguay, Clinton is expected to stop in Chile and Brazil before finishing her trip in Costa Rica and Guatemala.

Asked about the absence of Argentina on the itinerary, Crowley said there is a limit to the time available for the trip but that Clinton plans to meet with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Montevideo.

Her talks in Brazil, a current member of the U.N. Security Council, are expected to be dominated by the U.S.-led drive for new sanctions against Iran.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva hosted a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in November and is said to be cool to the idea of new U.N. sanctions.

In advance of her Brazil visit, Clinton sent Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns to Brasilia for preliminary talks Friday on the sanctions issue.