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Clinton’s rough road trip

BOGOTA, Colombia — Latin American officials often criticized the Bush administration for overemphasizing drugs and terrorism while overlooking immigration, democracy and economic development issues in the region.

Yet under the Obama administration, the winds of change in Washington have seemingly failed to blow very far south of the border.

That’s why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is receiving a rather cool reception on her current trip to Latin America. On a swing through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Barbados, the top American diplomat is finding herself on the defensive over issues ranging from Honduras to U.S. immigration law to trade pacts.

At the annual meeting of the Organization of American States in Lima, for example, Clinton argued Monday that Honduras should be allowed back into the OAS after the nation was expelled in the wake of last year’s military coup.

"Now it is time for the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community," she said.

But Washington’s handling of Honduras struck many Latin American officials as uninspiring. After condemning the coup, U.S. officials gave their seal of approval to presidential elections organized by Honduras’ de facto regime, a move that helped doom efforts to reinstate ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

That kind of realpolitik response that would have been expected from Bush. But many Latin Americans hoped for a more coherent policy from the Obama team.

Porfirio Lobo was sworn-in as the new Honduran president in January, but the left-leaning governments of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela continue to oppose the readmission of Honduras.

"Honduras's return to the OAS must be linked to specific means for ensuring re-democratization and the establishment of fundamental rights" Brazil's deputy foreign minister, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, said.

Clinton was also questioned about Arizona’s new immigration law, which takes effect in July and requires police to question people about their immigration status if they suspect the person is in the United States illegally. The pending law is widely viewed by Latin Americans as a racist slap in the face.

Clinton’s trip won’t get any easier when she arrives in Colombia tonight. The two countries signed a trade pact way back in 2006, but the agreement has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Congress. With mid-term elections looming in November, it’s unlikely there will be any movement on the trade pact this year.

American labor unions oppose the deal, saying it will mean a loss of U.S. jobs. Human rights groups, in turn, want Washington to pressure the Colombian government to protect trade union leaders — thousands of whom have been killed, threatened or forced into exile over the past two decades.

Clinton and other U.S. officials have pledged their support for the trade agreement. But that’s not enough to satisfy Colombian officials, who are close U.S. allies and who last year signed an agreement to allow expanded American use of Colombian military bases.

Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez said Clinton’s statements about the trade pact have been positive but added sharply: “At this point we need results.”