Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), seeking to promote stability in Latin America, met withAlejandro Toledo (search) on Thursday just two days after the Peruvian president swore in a fresh Cabinet.

"We recognize and respect the leadership role that you have taken in this country politically and from an economic standpoint as well as a security standpoint," Rumsfeld told Toledo.

The Peruvian president, who is facing low approval ratings and allegations of corruption in his government, was forced to ask 16 of his Cabinet ministers to step down last week. Under Peru's constitution, Toledo had to take such action after Prime Minister Carlos Ferrero resigned to protest Toledo's appointment of an unpopular ally as foreign minister.

U.S. defense officials praised Toledo's efforts to strengthen the economy, deal with terrorism and stem narcotics trafficking during his tenure. But they say strife within the democratic government, coupled with Toledo's unpopularity, causes concern that other countries or drug kingpins could destabilize Peru.

Toledo is in the final year of a five-year term, but U.S. officials say there's some risk that his term could end before the next national election in 2006.

Rumsfeld's visits to Peru and Paraguay this week, his third trip to the region in just 10 months, are part of an effort to strengthen U.S. ties with Latin American countries while encouraging democracy.

The trip also was aimed at gauging the influence of Cuba and Venezuela in the region.

The United States wants to ensure that Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search) do not steer other Latin American countries away from democracy.

In Peru and Paraguay, Rumsfeld urged cooperation among Latin American countries to stem "anti-social, destabilizing behavior" that threatens the Western Hemisphere's security.

Toledo said he didn't want to discuss the internal affairs of other countries but added that encouraging democracy is "a shared responsibility" in the region.

After meeting with top officials in Paraguay, U.S. defense officials said that country's leaders are alert to problems Cuba and Venezuela could cause.

Chavez has insisted his country poses no threat to the region and has accused the United States of trying to isolate Venezuela.

U.S. officials say the main target is Bolivia, which shares borders with Peru and Paraguay, but other countries could be vulnerable as well. They say unstable countries, coupled with chronic problems in Latin America of corruption, drug trafficking and gang violence, present a security threat to North and South America.