By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should move aggressively to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to promote its agenda in Latin America and help newly wired citizens cement political gains, said a new U.S. report obtained by Reuters.
Senator Richard Lugar said countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua still sought to curb economic and political freedoms, while other Latin American countries needed help buttressing emerging civil society groups.
Social media tools on the Internet, which played a central role in the "Arab Spring" uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, may be even more influential in Latin America, said Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Latin America does have the advantage of more mobile phone subscriptions, Internet users, broadband access, and secure Internet servers than the Middle East," Lugar said in the preface to the report, which his office is expected to release on Wednesday.
The State Department should do more to help Latin American countries address shortfalls in infrastructure and know-how, particularly as economic competitors such as China compete with the United States for influence in the region, it said.
"At a time when U.S. political influence is waning in the region, it is clear that U.S. driven technological trends could redefine relationships with many countries in Latin America," the report said.
The report by Carl Meacham, Lugar's senior staffer for Latin America and the Caribbean, recommends the United States support training programs in advanced software engineering as well as basic computer and online literacy programs in Latin America.
With only 12 percent of online resources available in Spanish or Portuguese, the report said the State Department should also support development of local websites and translation of other Internet resources.
Led by Brazil, the region's economic heavyweight, shoppers in many Latin American countries are snapping up computers and cell phones, making the region a major growth market for Internet giants including Google Inc.
To reach even more of Latin America's 600 million people, Lugar's report said private companies and governments should concentrate on low-bandwidth infrastructure, such as that needed for text messaging to social media sites, while developing content that can be used with slow connection speeds.
Alec Ross, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's adviser on innovation, said Lugar's report was in harmony with U.S. government efforts to expand Internet access around the world through everything from "tech training camps" for bloggers to developing software that can bypass firewalls imposed by government censors.
"For us, (social media) is a way of connecting and engaging with people who tend not to sit at mahogany tables in diplomatic conference rooms," Ross told Reuters.
(Editing by Andrew Quinn and Peter Cooney)