Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's radical president, has launched a broadside against US policy in Latin America in a recent speech likely to heighten Washington's concern about his country's rising influence in the region.
Addressing thousands of demonstrators protesting against the visit of US President George W. Bush to the recently-held Summit of the Americas in Argentina, Mr Chávez threatened to "bury capitalism in order to give birth to 21st century socialism, a new historic socialist project that the people of the Americas are demanding".
Mr Chdvez said that imperialism would fail in its attempts to stop the revolution just as it had failed to stop it in Cuba, and insisted: "We [Latin America] will never be North American colonies."
Rising oil prices have provided Mr Chávez with increasing funds for popular social programmes at home and in recent months he has used this wealth to provide cheap oil and financial support for a number of countries in the region.
There are fears that this could allow like-minded political movements to come to power in a number of neighbouring countries in a series of elections due over the next 14 months.
Evo Morales, the coca growers' leader who could become Bolivia's president following elections next month, told recently the FT that Mr Chávez was "an integrator who breeds solidarity and speaks for the Latin American people. He is an immense figure in the region."
Mr Bush has responded by seeking to reinforce US links with the region's two most important centre-left leaders. Recently, he held meetings with Néstor Kirchner, Argentina's president, and Brazil's President Luiz lndcio Lula da Silva. However, disagreements about free trade talks in the region could undermine these plans.
For example, in negotiations to agree common policies to tackle regional problems, Argentina and Brazil opposed US efforts to include fixed deadlines on a clause dealing with the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), a faltering trade accord agreed at the first Summit of the Americas 11 years ago.
Vicente Fox, president of Mexico, a US ally on trade issues, recently said he was "very dissatisfied" with the summit because of lack of progress on FTAA. He suggested that countries in favour of FTAA could forge ahead with an agreement even if this meant excluding other countries.
Failure to agree the wording of a clause covering FTAA distracted attention from the original objectives of the summit: common policies to tackle problems of poverty and joblessness, both of which have remained persistently high despite recent economic recovery in the region.
Both Argentina and Brazil have highly competitive agricultural sectors and are refusing to negotiate a deal that does not start to dismantle barriers and subsidies benefiting US farmers. Mr Chávez said simply that the agreement should be "buried".
"Mar del Plata is the grave of the FTAA," he told demonstrators. "FTAA, FTAA, to hell with FTAA."