Rumsfeld eager to promote US ties with Latin America as he attends summit

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in Managua for two days of meetings with defense officials from the Americas, said he was eager to discuss continuing military relationships with those countries, including military training programs.

Severing ties to the Latin American countries because of disagreements on other issues, he said Sunday, would only hurt the United States in years to come. It is better to maintain relationships and create a greater understanding of the U.S., he said.

"There's going to be no nation that will agree with us all the time," said Rumsfeld, adding that it would be "unfortunate if our immediate reaction to some disagreement or difference would have the automatic effect of severing military to military relationships."

The talks here in one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest countries are expected to focus on counter-narcotics and counterterrorism efforts, peacekeeping missions, humanitarian and disaster relief and the removal of land mines. More than 30 South and Central American countries are participating.

The meeting of the region's defense ministers follows a tense period in which Venezuela's leaders lashed out at the U.S. and Bush during a U.N. meeting in New York City. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called Bush "the devil" and slammed U.S. leaders for trying to block his country from taking a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Rumsfeld said Sunday he did not expect to meet privately with the Venezuelan defense minister, although he will see him during the regular meetings.

One senior defense official traveling with Rumsfeld added that U.S. officials are not here looking for a conflict with the Venezuelans and "we're not trying to make this some kind of competition."

U.S. officials have long considered Chavez a destabilizing force. And they have suggested that Venezuela would make the Security Council unworkable if the nation were to win its bid against U.S.-backed Guatemala for a rotating council seat, reports AP.

Also Sunday, Rumsfeld visited the nearby Masaya Volcano, and made the steep climb up to the top of the crater, to peer down over the edge of the most active volcano in the region.

Masaya has erupted at least 19 times since 1524, but on Sunday it was quiet, with just a cloud of steam rising from its depths.

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