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Clinton trip to highlight progress in S. America

President Clinton's visit to South America will highlight the progressive political and economic systems of a region better known for autocratic rule and aching poverty, White House officials say.

"These countries have truly arrived on the world stage," said Mack McLarty, the president's special envoy for Latin America. They "clearly have made the transition from an authoritarian military dictatorship in some cases to a civil democracy."Clinton departs Sunday for a seven-day visit to Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. It will be his first trip to South America. The visit, originally planned for April, was rescheduled after Clinton injured his knee.

Officials, speaking at a White House briefing, told reporters the president wants to express his support for democracy in South America, as well as highlight some little-known facts about the countries there.

For example, Venezuela has replaced Saudi Arabia as the largest supplier of oil to the United States. Brazil has brought its once astronomical inflation down from 1,600 percent in 1990 to less than 5 percent currently.

And, Argentina has placed itself among the world's leading peacekeepers, taking part in more than 12 U.N. missions over the past 10 years, in places such as Bosnia, Cyprus, Mozambique and Cambodia.

To honor that role, Clinton will designate Argentina as a non-NATO military ally. It will be the first country to win that designation since the Cold War.

The designation has stirred dismay among some other Latin nations, such as Chile. But Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, said conferring the status on Argentina does not slight the contributions of other countries.

"They are not the 20th member of NATO. We are peacekeeping allies, and that is what the status means," Berger said.