WASHINGTON -- Addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used her oft-repeated phrase: "We do have to deal with the world as it is, but we don't have to accept the world as it is.'' This has become her mantra of sorts, central to Rice's notion of "transformational diplomacy'' in which the United States cooperates with other democracies to build a "safer and better and freer world.''
Such a notion should be welcome by most Latin Americans, but it is certainly not a philosophy that many in the region think Washington now practices. South American leaders are far likelier to say that U.S. policy-makers are stuck in a Cold War mentality that sees a monolithic leftist threat growing south of the border than they are interested in cooperation.
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Only hours before Rice's speech, a close adviser to Chilean President Ricardo Lagos reminded me how different the perception can be in Latin America. Lagos, the leader of the most prosperous country in Latin America today and the only one in South America with a free trade agreement with the United States, was busy preparing a campaign to "break that bipolar axis'' separating the left and the right. According to Lagos's view, Washington and Caracas are creating this artificial regional divide.
Lagos had just decided to meet with his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in the hope that an image of both leaders standing side by side would clearly signal to the world that in South America there is a modern, sensible and progressive left -- worlds apart from firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Lagos' efforts were in part designed to bolster support for Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza, who is running neck and neck with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez in a bid to become secretary-general of the Organization of American States. But more broadly, they were intended to refute insinuations made by U.S. officials that a vote for Insulza would be a vote for Chavez and his leftist crusade.
For his part, Chavez has used the OAS contest to push his anti-American rhetoric, presenting a vote for Insulza as a vote against U.S. "imperialist'' influence in the region. After his stop in Brazil, Lagos flew to Caracas hoping to convince Chavez to moderate his excesses toward Washington on the OAS and other matters.
Rice's transformational diplomacy appears to have a long way to go to overcome Cold War apprehensions in this city. It obviously doesn't help that one of the last Cold War remnants is only 90 miles away from the United States. Nor does it help that Chavez has found in Cuban dictator Fidel Castro his best ally. Or that he has quickly mastered Castro's ability to create tension between his adversaries in Washington and many of his more natural allies in Latin American capitals.
Slipping into a Cold War left-right trap, though, plays to Chavez's strengths by fanning the flames of anti-American sentiment that the Venezuelan uses to enhance regional divisions. This narrow vision also handicaps South American nations that might want to try a transformational diplomacy of their own by engaging with Chavez instead of seeking to isolate him.
True, Chavez has given U.S. officials little choice other than adopting a hard line against him. He lampoons the United States as a whole and spouts personal insults to members of Bush's Cabinet, none more base as those against Rice herself.
His belligerence is saddening and sickening but it cannot justify the U.S. extrapolation that all who share some of Chavez's leftist beliefs -- or accept his support -- also share in his insane desire to divide the hemisphere between his camp and Washington's.
In South America, Washington's lofty goals to spread freedom and democracy will depend on its ability to differentiate between two lefts. The success of one will ensure the defeat of the other. In other words, the surest route to undermine what Chavez represents is cooperation with a modern left struggling to play by the rules of democracy and capitalism while satisfying the high expectations of the people who voted these leftist leaders into power.
Rice is scheduled to make her first trip as secretary of state to South America next week. The question of how much she will be able to enlist the South Americans in the pursuit of her "transformational diplomacy'' will depend on her ability to convince them that in Washington the time of fearing a monolithic left is no more.
Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.