RIO DE JANIERO -- Latin American leaders kicked off a two-day summit yesterday with talks on a larger peacekeeping force for Haiti and the impact that President Bush's reelection may have on the region.
While Latin America has contributed the bulk of troops to the UN force in Haiti, it still stands at about half the 8,000 personnel recommended by the United Nations after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the conflict-ravaged island in February.
At least 79 people have been killed in Haiti since Aristide supporters stepped up a violent campaign more than a month ago to demand his return from exile in South Africa. Peacekeepers have been unable to halt the violence completely.
Rio Group leaders plan to discuss ways to increase troop strength in Haiti, but the presidents of Brazil and Peru did not offer specifics in opening statements.
''The nature of Haiti's problems requires us to adopt long-term solutions," said Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo. ''The Rio Group must assume long-term commitments, based not only on free elections but also to prevent the situation from repeating itself again."
The peacekeepers in Haiti have also been stretched by having to provide security for a massive humanitarian effort after Tropical Storm Jeanne killed about 2,000 people and left 900 presumed dead in the city of Gonaives.
''Our solidarity is being tested by the Caribbean crisis in Haiti," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said.
Without more troops, it may be difficult to control the situation in Haiti. When the country erupted into violence in 1994, President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 Marines who stayed for more than a year.
Latin America was a top focus for Bush after he won his first term in 2000, but issues such as immigration took a back seat to terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the war in Iraq.
''I hope President Bush will start looking more closely toward the south," Toledo said.
With Bush's reelection, negotiations over a free-trade agreement stretching from Alaska to Argentina are likely to go into high gear -- a key goal of many Latin American countries that want to boost their exports to the United States.
The summit is being held only five days after Uruguayan voters strengthened South America's political tilt to the left, electing their first leftist president out of disenchantment with US-backed free-market policies and economic upheaval. But specialists say Uruguay's new president, Tabare Vazquez, and the other new left-leaning Latin American leaders are largely seen as pragmatists who know they must have better relations with the United States to boost their economies. Brazil's leader and President Ricardo Lagos of Chile have won praise from investors for sticking to free-market policies while emphasizing a greater role for government in helping the poor.