Chile's New Leader to Meet With Bush at the White House

Meetings at the White House and Capitol Hill highlight a visit by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, a leftist who is nonetheless widely admired here as a pro-democracy stalwart.

After a luncheon meeting with President Bush on Thursday, Bachelet planned to make the rounds of Capitol Hill for discussions with Republican and Democratic leaders and other lawmakers. A speech at the Organization of American States also was scheduled.

In contrast to some of its South American neighbors in the Andes, Chile is a model of democratic stability and prosperity.

Bachelet, while espousing socialistic policies, believes in free markets and free trade. U.S.-Chile trade has boomed since a bilateral free trade agreement took effect in January 2004.

As a measure of the high regard in which she is held here, Bush extended the invitation for the Chilean leader to visit almost immediately after her inauguration in March.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said repeatedly that the United States can work with Latin American governments with leftist orientations so long as they remain faithful to democratic standards.

As examples, she cites Chile and Brazil. Less serene are U.S. relations with Venezuela, which is seen here as increasingly authoritarian.

Bachelet's rise to the top was not easy. She endured torture during Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship a generation ago. En route to the presidency, she also had to overcome the biases of Chile's conservative, male-dominated culture. She is a separated mother of three.

Bachelet paid respects Thursday morning to the memory of Orlando Letelier, an exiled former Chilean foreign minister who was assassinated on a Washington street in 1976 by agents of Chile's military government. He was an outspoken opponent of the army general then in power in Santiago.

"It was an act of horror, shocking. It still saddens me," Bachelet said in Spanish as she placed a floral wreath near a monument at the site of the crime in the Embassy Row area.

On regional politics, Bachelet has staked out a softer line toward Venezuela's pro-Cuban government than has the Bush administration.

She invited Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to her inauguration in March. She has not taken a stand on Venezuela's candidacy for a U.N. Security Council seat assigned to the Latin America-Caribbean region and which is being vacated at the end of the year.

The Bush administration has been strongly urging Chile and other governments of the region to support Guatemala's bid for the seat.

Another point of disagreement is Chile's support of the International Criminal Court. It rejects U.S. appeals that Chile agree to grant U.S. soldiers and other citizens immunity from ICC prosecution for any crimes committed on Chilean soil.