Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said Monday that the wave of leftists rising to power across Latin America poses no threat to democracy and should not create tensions with the United States.
Lagos, whose six-year term ends on March 11, told The Associated Press in an interview that the leftist victories show that people are unhappy with the status quo and "are looking for more democracy rather than less."
Lagos will be succeeded by fellow socialist Michelle Bachelet, who becomes Chile's first woman president. He called her election proof "of a major cultural change in Chile."
Lagos said the rise of leftist governments in the region should not worry U.S. officials, citing the positive relations his government had with Washington.
"We have been able to carry out our policies and at the same time we have a very mature relationship with the United States," Lagos said.
As an example of this, he noted that Chile opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq yet signed a free trade agreement with Washington.
Lagos added that Chile's values are similar to those of the United States. "Democracy, markets in the areas where markets have a role, democracy, human rights."
Lagos also said the frequent verbal clashes between leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and U.S. officials are an inconvenience.
"One thing is that there are opposing points of view, but another thing is that these kinds of clashes occur," he said.
"There is no justification for that, neither on the part of President Chavez nor on the part of the United States," Lagos added. "We must be able to process differences."
Chavez "plays a role in Latin America" because of the economic bonanza oil-rich Venezuela is enjoying with high petroleum prices, he said.
Lagos, a lawyer and economist who opposed the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is considered by many to be the pioneer of the current wave of leftist governments in Latin America.
Since his election in 1999, leaders who are considered leftist have been elected in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay.
Those elections show that democracy is much stronger in Latin America, Lagos told the AP.
"Voters feel unhappy with the status quo and think with these governments they can change that," he said.
"There is more democracy with the election of a labor leader as president Lula (da Silva) in Brazil, or with the election of somebody from the ethnic majorities, the Indians, like Evo Morales in Bolivia," he added.
While "there have been significant changes to the left in the hemisphere, they have occurred in a framework of great responsibility," Lagos said. "Take a look at Brazil, where the leadership of President Lula is a great leadership, and a very responsible one."
Lagos repeated his support for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, a free trade zone stretching from Canada to Patagonia. The area was proposed by the United States and is strongly opposed by Chavez and leftist groups in the region.
But Lagos said that the FTAA must take into account the differences between the countries in the region and consider their readiness to open their markets to trade.
"The solution is a FTAA developed in different stages," he said (AP)