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Latin America Leaders Balk at U.S. Plan

Many oppose the push to get the OAS to set democratic standards, saying they want to avoid the Washington- Venezuela dispute.

June 03, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Latin American leaders are quietly resisting a Bush administration proposal to strengthen democracy in the region, saying they fear it was crafted to target Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

U.S. officials have been trying to persuade the Organization of American States to adopt what they say are standards for democratic government.

Diplomats from many countries fear that it is aimed at Chavez, viewed by some as an anti-U.S. leader, and that it also could amount to an invitation for the U.S.-dominated group to meddle in other nations' affairs.

"This organization has followed a principle of non-intervention for many years," Salvador Rodezno, the Honduran ambassador to the OAS, said in an interview. "Many countries are just not ready for this.... We should move gradually."

The dispute over the proposal, which will be the focus of discussion at an OAS meeting in Florida next week, also is a sign of Latin America's growing resistance to U.S. influence. Left-leaning leaders are now in charge of three-fourths of the hemisphere's governments.

The OAS has historically organized joint actions to help countries that have suffered coups or blows to the governing order. But officials of the United States and other countries have argued for some time that it would be better to head off these crises. Officials made this point after governments fell in Ecuador this year, in Haiti last year and in Bolivia in 2003.

U.S. diplomats have been circulating a proposal that would create a mechanism by which the OAS could evaluate how well each country's democratic institutions functioned. The standard of measurement would be the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a collection of core democratic principles that OAS members voted to adopt in September 2001.

The OAS could compile a list of countries that don't meet the standards, just as the United States and other international organizations do for countries that are judged lacking on narcotics, human rights, corruption or other criteria. Making such judgments would assign a more muscular role to the OAS, which usually shies from strong action against its own members.

But many Latin American countries dislike the idea that they could be stigmatized by inclusion on such a list, even if it didn't necessarily entail any other punishment, OAS diplomats and analysts say.

"Latin American countries don't like lists of who's naughty and who's nice," said Daniel P. Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "They've watched the U.S. government developing lists for years; they don't go down well."

Many Latin American countries are also unwilling to support the proposal if it means taking sides with the United States in its growing confrontation with Chavez.

The populist Venezuelan leader has been steadily stepping up his denunciation of the United States, which he accuses of seeking to dominate the region. He has recently threatened to break off relations with the United States -- a key customer for Venezuelan oil -- over its unwillingness to extradite a Cuban exile wanted in Venezuela for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner.

Possibly to provoke Washington, Chavez last month declared an interest in collaborating with Iran to develop a nuclear capability for Venezuela.

U.S. officials have said they are concerned about what they see as Chavez's actions to curb the media and limit the power of the opposition and the judiciary in Venezuela. They assert that he has dangerous ties to Cuba and could destabilize his region with support of rebel groups and arms sales. Chavez has denied such ambitions.

OAS diplomats say they expect most South American countries, including Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, to oppose the U.S. proposal. Many of these countries have already made it clear that they don't intend to get in the middle of a U.S.Venezuelan dispute, though they may have reservations about Chavez.

In addition, it may be difficult for Caribbean countries, which receive subsidized oil from Venezuela, to oppose Caracas on the issue, OAS diplomats said.

The OAS meeting in Fort Lauderdale could become the latest venue for the escalating U.S.-Venezuelan dispute. A committee of Venezuelan legislators, and the country's foreign minister, are expected to try to enlist the OAS in pressuring the U.S. to extradite Luis Posada Carriles, 77.

Posada, a longtime foe of Cuban President Fidel Castro, is accused in the 1973 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. He was arrested last month in Florida and charged with entering the country illegally.

Many OAS diplomats and other observers believe that opposition to the U.S. proposal may force it to be rewritten in a weaker form when the participating countries issue a joint declaration next week. That statement could simply declare that the OAS will offer technical assistance and advice on governance to countries whose democratic institutions are in trouble.

Jose Miguel Insulza, the former Chilean government official who was installed last month as secretary-general of the OAS, has said the proposal should be "voluntary" and "participatory," rather than a system of judgments imposed by outsiders.

"You're probably going to get a watered-down ... version of this," said Erikson of the Inter American Dialogue.

Such an outcome would be another sign that nations in the hemisphere have drifted apart.

Only four years ago, when OAS members met in Quebec City, they agreed on a "hemispheric agenda" that appeared to be a commitment to work closely together on democracy and free trade.

Since then, many Latin Americans have become disenchanted with the promise of free trade and have installed left-leaning governments.

People in the region have been unhappy with Washington's perceived neglect of the hemisphere since the Sept. 11 attacks and are uneasy with the administration's assertive foreign policy in Iraq and elsewhere.

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