BUENOS AIRES — The Bush administration's self-proclaimed "year of engagement" with Latin America kicked off last week with broadsides against Venezuela and Iran, a diplomatic tiff with Argentina and analysts wondering whether it all wasn't a little late in the game.
"A veritable diplomatic offensive by a government that has only concentrated on Iraq," wrote veteran correspondent Gustavo Sierra in the Argentine newspaper Clarin after a visit here by R. Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of State for political affairs, and Thomas A. Shannon, the administration's top diplomat for Latin America.
The pair also visited Brazil, and U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales made a separate visit last week to Argentina and Brazil. The White House confirmed that President Bush would venture to Latin America in March, with stops scheduled in Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
The moves are widely seen in South America as an effort to counter the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has wooed his fellow leaders with oil subsidies, foreign aid and a steady diet of invective targeting "the devil" Bush.
It has become conventional wisdom here, even among U.S. allies, that the Bush administration's fixation on Iraq and the Middle East has left Latin America, once the focus of Cold War conflicts, largely ignored, except for U.S. insistence on aggressive drug-interdiction and free-trade policies.
Chavez has gleefully exploited that void, which many think will widen as a politically debilitated Bush assumes lame-duck status.
The White House effort "is catch up and see what we can salvage," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.
U.S. officials embraced the "year of engagement" theme after recent elections put leftists in charge in much of the region, including pro-Chavez presidents in Ecuador and Bolivia. Conservative and pro-U.S. administrations were elected in key allies Colombia and Mexico.
The Bush administration says it has an ability to work across the ideological spectrum.
"Coming out of 2006, we thought it was very important to start 2007 very quickly with as many trips into the region at as high a level as possible," Burns said in Washington before leaving for South America.
Although U.S. diplomats insisted that the initiative was not intended to counter Chavez's spreading influence, the subject has inevitably flared.
"Frankly, you have to wonder if Chavez's plan is to become president for life," Burns told reporters here.
Most analysts are skeptical that the anti-Chavez strategy will bear fruit in places such as Brazil and Argentina, where leftist presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Nestor Kirchner, respectively, have eschewed Chavez's anti-Washington rhetoric but have welcomed Venezuela into the South American trade bloc known as Mercosur.
Chavez has used the platform to criticize U.S. policies, as he did at a hemispheric trade enclave in Argentina in 2005, when a flustered Bush was unable to craft a new free-trade zone, to Chavez's delight.
"In private, some leaders may express concern about Chavez, but publicly there is a sense of unity among South American countries in defending sovereignty and resisting efforts to divide the hemisphere," said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. diplomats' trip to Argentina also provided an opportunity to lash out at another U.S. antagonist -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Chavez ally whose Latin American tour last month clearly upset the White House. Ahmadinejad was pictured kissing babies while in Nicaragua for the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega, a Cold War adversary of the Reagan administration.
"There is a concern that if Iran, through Chavez, is making a presence in the U.S. backyard, then that needs to be dealt with," said Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington study group.
The U.S. diplomats visited the site of a Buenos Aires Jewish cultural center targeted in a 1994 bombing that Argentina and Israel say was linked to Iran. Tehran denies any involvement, but U.S. officials have voiced strong support for Argentina's efforts to extradite former Iranian officials, including ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani, in connection with the blast, which killed 85 people and wounded 200.
Jewish leaders in Argentina, home to the region's largest Jewish population, applauded the U.S. effort. Luis Grynwald, who heads the rebuilt Jewish center here, called it "a symbol of the action we all have to take against international terrorism."
Critics were quick to assail Washington's human rights record, citing abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. All have fanned anti-U.S. sentiment in a region where Washington's previous interventions and alliances with military dictatorships remain fresh in the collective memory.