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U.S. Not Worried About Venezuela-Brazil-Cuba 'Axis of Good'

The Bush administration on Friday brushed aside suggestions that Brazil's new leftist president is ready to form an alliance with leaders from Venezuela and Cuba.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva displayed friendship toward Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba in the aftermath of Silva's inauguration on Wednesday.

Chavez has even dubbed the troika a Latin American "axis of good." Silva had breakfast with Chavez on Thursday and dinner with Castro that night. Beforehand, Castro said Lula's election augured well for Cuban-Brazilian relations.

Responding to the suggestion of an axis unfriendly to the United States being formed, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "Let's get serious. These are three different leaders with different nations and different interests."

"We have an excellent relationship with Brazil, and we look forward to building on that relationship," Boucher said.

He also said both Venezuela and Brazil share the democratic values enshrined in hemispheric agreements.

In contrast, he said, "Cuba remains a stark exception to those values."

He said the United States can cooperate with Brazil and support a democratic path in Venezuela as it faces the challenge of overcoming deep political divisions.

Shortly after his election in October, Silva told an interviewer the Cuban revolution, now 44 years ago, held little appeal for Brazilians nowadays.

Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue research group, said Silva's display of friendship toward Chavez and Castro was a means of making a gesture to his leftist supporters at home.

"Having meetings with Chavez and Castro is a way to satisfy his base for now," Shifter said. "I can't imagine him going in the direction that Chavez and Castro have gone."

Shifter said Silva's statements and his appointments to key economic posts suggest that his economic policies may be similar to those of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

One test of Brazil's relations with Venezuela could be Silva's response to Chavez's request for technical experts from Brazil's state-owned oil company to replace some of the 30,000 Venezuelan state oil workers who have joined a crippling nationwide strike.

President Bush dispatched U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick as his personal representative at the inauguration.

The selection was seen by some Brazilians as a snub because Zoellick suggested last October that Brazil's only trading partner would be Antarctica if it did not join a proposed hemispheric free trade zone.

Silva responded by calling Zoellick "the sub secretary of a sub secretary of a sub secretary" during his election campaign. Zoellick is a member of Bush's Cabinet.

Zoellick is expected to have extensive dealings with Brazil as part of Bush's goal of a hemispheric free trade agreement by January 2005.