Winds of discontent are again blowing through Latin America, threatening U.S. influence in the region. Washington promoted political and economic transformations that swept the continent in the 1990s, but the resulting leap from dictatorship to democracy has left many political and governmental institutions weak. And despite promises of expanded opportunities, some 70 percent of the region's 500 million people live on $300 a month or less. Income inequality between rich and poor is stark, and growing. Stoking the inevitable bitterness is Venezuela's combative president, Hugo Chávez, who has made himself the Bush administration's rival for regional leadership. Skyrocketing oil revenues are turning his petroleum-rich country into a financial powerhouse. Meanwhile, critics of U.S. support for free trade say unrestricted commerce will weaken Latin American countries at the expense of North American business interests.