Latin America's populist surge, including the recent election of a leftist president in Ecuador, has left some analysts concerned that American clout in the region is declining. 

Ecuador's president-elect, Rafael Correa, will be the latest to join the ranks of a growing number of populist leaders in Latin America, ranging from Brazil's moderate left-wing president, Luis Inacio Lula Da Silva, to Venezuela's hardline president Hugo Chavez. During the past five years, Latin American voters have elected populist leaders throughout the region, including in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Peru. Some analysts say disillusioned voters removed governments that failed to improve their economic well being and elected candidates who campaigned against U.S.-supported market reforms. Some argue that this trend is a blow to U.S. foreign policy and an indication that Washington's influence in the region is declining.

Latin America Turns Left

Joy Olson, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America, which monitors human rights in the region, says that while Latin America's leftist surge is largely due to internal politics, it also reflects voter displeasure with American foreign policy.

"We have lost influence. And I think that it has to do with the attitude of the United States in its pursuit of foreign policy internationally. The lack of a multilateral approach to the solution of a number of problems, the existence of [the U.S. detainment center at] Guantanamo [Bay, Cuba], the implementation of restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance to countries that support the International Criminal Court, things like that," says Olson.

But some analysts say the United States appears to be losing influence because it is seen to have neglected Latin America since shifting its focus to the war on terror after the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York five years ago.

Peter DeShazo, Director of the America's Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the perception that the United States is no longer interested in Latin America is largely due to its focus on other parts of the world.

"The fact is that U.S. engagement is often not understood or seen, but it's been consistent. The U.S. is still the major trade partner in the region by a long shot, and it is still seen as the key [trading] nation. But the image of the United States is that it's so concentrated on Iraq that it's lost its focus in the region. But the media and the overall perception, both in the region and outside it, see the United States as not as engaged as before," says DeShazo.

Money and Influence

U.S. trade generates about $250 billion in income in Latin America and the Caribbean each year. In addition, Washington provides Latin America with about $1.7 billion in assistance.

Some regional experts warn that Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, has undercut U.S. influence in Latin America. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of the United States who has called President George Bush "the devil", has given Cuba nearly $2 billion in economic assistance and billions more to other Latin American countries. And some analysts say that Mr. Chavez sought to influence recent elections in Nicaragua and Peru by bankrolling like-minded leftist candidates.

But Peter DeShazo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says few Latin American leaders share Mr. Chavez's extreme anti-American views.

"The very harsh rhetoric against the United States by Hugo Chavez is not generally picked up in other parts of the hemisphere. And I think we've already seen indications that that kind of rhetoric does not get him support and, in fact, is rejected by most people in the hemisphere," says DeShazo.

Many experts see Mr. Chavez's regional and international influence waning since Venezuela lost its bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council last month. But they also stress that Washington's influence has its limits, given that much of Latin America's populism is driven by the wide gap between rich and poor.

According to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 200 million people - - nearly 41 percent of the region's population - - did not earn enough to meet basic needs last year.

Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President Bush, says even though Latin America should fix its own problems, the United States must make it clear that it cares about that part of the world.

Building Better Relations

"We need to demonstrate that we are interested, [that] we are engaged. Certainly, President Bush is not a popular individual in terms of Latin American public opinion. And that maybe unfair because he does care an awful lot about the region and about the poor in the region and he has put [forth] his policy consciously to strengthen democratic institutions that help the people from all walks of life," says Noriega. "Having said that, Latin [Americans] need to stop making excuses for their problems and get busy about solving them on their own. And the essential obstacles to development have absolutely nothing to do with the United States."

Most experts agree that the United States needs to help create a better climate for cooperation with Latin America. Some suggest passing U.S. immigration reform legislation and helping interested Latin American nations approve a proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas for the Western Hemisphere.

Washington should also engage Latin America's moderate left-wing governments, including those it may not like, says Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Director of The Independent Institute's Center on Global Prosperity.

"Some of their policies will run contrary to the wishes of the United States.  For instance, the Brazilian and Argentinean governments have opposed the idea of a Free Trade Area for the Americas, which I think the United States and many other Latin American countries wanted to move forward with. I think it would be wrong to simply brush everything aside as if all of these countries could be lumped together under one banner - - the left. These are very different types of left-wing governments. Some of them are perfectly ready to engage the United States," says Llosa.

Most analysts agree that while the United States should be wary of some of Latin America's leftist governments, it should also view them as an opportunity for cooperation to encourage the region along a path to political and economic reform.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.