WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday the United States has no quarrel with leftist leaders in Latin America and wants good relations with Bolivia under its new president, a coca growers union boss who once vowed to be "Washington's nightmare."
She plans to attend Saturday's inauguration in Chile of President-elect Michelle Bachelet, a socialist pediatrician who is the first Latin American woman to be elected president without a powerful husband.
Rice will meet with Bolivian President Evo Morales when both attend the Bachelet inauguration. It will be their first meeting, and one closely watched in Latin America, where Bachelet and Morales are the latest leftist politicians to win democratic elections.
"This is a wonderful moment, the inauguration of the Chilean president, a woman president," Rice told a group of Latin American, Asian and Australian reporters.
"The United States has no trouble, no difficulty, dealing with countries from either side of the political spectrum," citing Chile and Brazil as left-of-center governments that have good economic and other ties with Washington.
"The issue for us is that when you're elected democratically that you govern democratically," Rice said. That was a jab at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has eroded democratic norms in that country and made anti-Americanism the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He frequently calls President Bush a terrorist.
"I have no plans to see the Venezuelan president," Rice said.
But Chavez will be at the Bachelet ceremony in Valparaiso.
Chavez has repeatedly accused the U.S. of trying to oust him. U.S. officials deny it but have increasingly expressed alarm about Chavez's domination of Venezuelan politics and his close ties to Cuba's Fidel Castro.
Morales campaigned with a milder anti-American edge. He jokingly mispronounced Rice's first name before his election in January, calling her "Condolencia," or condolences in Spanish, and made headlines with his remark that his election would be a nightmare for the United States.
Since his election, Morales has held a cordial phone call with Bush and asked the United States to reconsider a proposed cut in anti-drug aid to Bolivia from $80 million to $67 million.
Morales led the often-violent struggle against U.S.-backed coca eradication efforts over the past decade, and has promised to retool Bolivian coca policy.
The coca leaf is the key ingredient in cocaine, but it also has legal traditional uses in South America's poorest nation.
Morales has asked the U.S. government to enter into a "true" pact to fight drugs but has vowed his goal will be "zero cocaine," not "zero coca."
Provocative remarks aren't the sole province of the new leftist Latin American leaders.
Last month Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld likened Chavez to Adolf Hitler, and said the elections of both Morales and Chavez were troublesome.
"We've seen some populist leadership appealing to masses of people in those countries," Rumsfeld said during a National Press Club appearance.
"Elections like Evo Morales in Bolivia take place that clearly are worrisome." He continued, "I mean, we've got Chavez in Venezuela with a lot of oil money. He's a person who was elected legally — just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally — and then consolidated power and now is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others."
Rice will also visit Indonesia and Australia next week. She canceled a trip to those nations earlier this year because of the illness of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.