As Karen Hughes, the incoming undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, begins the task of trying to improve the U.S. image abroad, one area of concern is Latin America. Relations with most countries in this region have been close and friendly, but there are some challenges emerging.

In the 1980s, when the Cold War dominated foreign policy, U.S. attention was focused intently on such places as Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and democratic governments came to power throughout the Western Hemisphere, with the notable exception of communist Cuba, where President Fidel Castro was left isolated and struggling with a collapsed economy.

More recently, the threat of terrorism and combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have focused U.S. policy on the Middle East. Vera Kutzinski, director of the Center for the Americas at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, says that, as a result, the United States has neglected its neighbors.

"The United States has not really been paying as much attention to Latin America and the Caribbean as it might have," she says.

She says U.S. influence has waned and challenges to U.S. policies in the Americas have grown. She says Karen Hughes should take a good look at what has happened in the region, not only to bolster the U.S. image there, but also to see what has worked and what has not worked.

"There are some important lessons to be derived from our history of relationship building, successes and failures, in Latin America that would be instructive, I think, to Ms. Hughes and I hope she does consult that history closely," she says.

Hugo Chavez
Aside from the Castro government in Cuba, the strongest opposition to U.S. policy in Latin America comes from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has announced plans to begin a television network in the region that some critics fear will be a platform for anti-U.S. rhetoric.

Julia Sweig, a Latin American specialist at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, says oil-rich Venezuela has the means to be effective in such a venture and that Mr. Chavez's message may fall on willing ears.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the Chavez government has a strong anti-U.S. position and it has the money and resources to broadcast that position throughout Latin America," she says. "I think that will represent a challenge because Latin America is fertile ground. Hugo Chavez does not have to move mountains to push Latin American opinion against the United States."

Something that undermined the U.S. image in the region, according to Ms. Sweig, was the failure of the U.S. government to strongly condemn a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chavez in April, 2002.

On the other hand, Ms. Sweig says the United States has done well in developing friendly relations with the left-leaning government of President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, even though he disagrees with U.S. trade policy.

Julia Sweig says U.S. neglect of the region cannot be undone through public diplomacy efforts alone.

"Public relations without substantive policy will do nothing to help us, in fact, it might backfire," she says.

U.S. officials, however, say Washington is matching its words with deeds and that relations with other nations in the Americas are based on longstanding programs of cooperation and assistance.

Roger Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, in a recent exchange with Latin American journalists, noted that academic exchange programs have flourished and proven to be beneficial to both the United States and the other countries involved. He also emphasized the U.S. commitment to free trade as a way of breaking down barriers and spreading prosperity to all strata of Latin American society.