At presidential inaugurations, as at weddings, the guest list says everything. In Montevideo today, Tabare Vazquez will be sworn in as the first left-wing president in the 170-year history of Uruguay. That is noteworthy enough, but even more remarkable are the foreign dignitaries in attendance.
Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, the center-left President of Brazil will be there. So will Hugo Chavez, the fiery demagogue who leads Venezuela, and Argentina's Nestor Kirchner. Adding the revolutionary topping will be none other than Fidel Castro. No gathering could better symbolize the slow drift of Latin America out of the US orbit.
Until 31 October, Uruguay could be counted upon as one of Washington's staunchest friends in the hemisphere. But then Mr Vazquez, an oncologist and former mayor of Montevideo, broke the traditional two-party mold of Uruguayan politics by leading the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) leftist coalition to an overwhelming election victory.
Today Washington's unqualified, 100 per cent loyal allies to the south of its border with Mexico are no more than one or two - El Salvador and Honduras certainly, but who else? Even Chile defied the superpower by refusing to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a slight not yet entirely forgotten in Washington.
Instead, a de facto center-left bloc is emerging across the continent. Its members vary greatly from Chile, the economic poster-boy, to Washington's bugbear Venezuela. One thing, however, they have in common. They may not be necessarily opposed to the US on every issue, but they are no longer beholden to it.
Their drift away is testament to an historic failure of American foreign policy. In recent years the US approach to Latin America has been hopelessly distorted by its fixation with one modest-sized island 90 miles south of the Florida Keys. In economic and military terms Cuba is of little significance, but its symbolic importance has been vastly magnified by the attentions lavished upon it by Washington.
Isolation has been the watchword - first of President Castro, and now of another regional "bad boy" in the person of Mr Chavez. But the strategy has backfired utterly. American bullying has given the Cuban leader a nationalist support he might never have had otherwise, consolidating his position as the longest-serving government leader on the planet.
The US has bullied Mr Chavez too, clumsily backing a failed coup against him in 2002, and subsequently criticizing him at every turn. Today, boosted by his state's surging oil wealth, Mr Chavez is more assertive than ever. "Washington is planning my death," he claims, using Mr Castro's tactics to mobilize supporters against an external foe.
Once upon a time, the US tried to understand Latin America. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt and his top Latin American adviser, Sumner Welles, realized that US military interventions in Cuba and elsewhere were counterproductive. Instead they devised the "Good Neighbor Policy". Two decades later, John Kennedy proclaimed the Alianza para el Progreso (the Alliance for Progress).
Since then, however, US diplomacy has been back-handed in the extreme. Its illogical obsession with Cuba, its insistence on seeing the world through a single prism - first the struggle with communism, then the spread of free markets and free trade, now the "war on terror" - have blinded it to the sensitivities of the region. During the Cold War, Washington backed an array of unpleasant military dictators as bastions against Soviet power. Later, the US insistence on rigorous fiscal policies (which it conspicuously fails to impose on itself) is widely blamed for a string of financial crises, culminating in the near-collapse of Argentina's economy in 2002.
"The US has suffered defeats on every front," says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "The fact is that Latin America is no longer 'hemisphere-bound', just a handful of countries in America's back-yard." Today President Castro is probably in a stronger position in the region than ever before. Both Brazil's Lula and Uruguay's Vazquez were elected on left-wing platforms, but are economic realists. Closer ties with Cuba allow them to burnish their left-wing credentials and prove their independence from the US, sweetening harsh economic medicine at home.
It is unlikely the US will regain the lost ground any time soon. Neither George Bush nor Condoleezza Rice have displayed any real feel for Latin America. Policymaking has been sub-contracted to neo-conservative ideologues, notably Roger Noriega, head of Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, and the former White House aide Otto Reich.
Mr Birns points to the growing links between Mercosur, the rickety four-nation trade bloc grouping Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and the EU as a preferable alternative to the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, that is promoted by the US. Tellingly, after his stop in Montevideo, Mr Chavez is off to India and the Middle East. Washington can but watch, and gnash its teeth in impotent fury.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.