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Bush Urges OAS Nations to Promote Democracy

Some countries are resisting a U.S. call for the organization to set democratic standards, which they consider a pretext for meddling.

June 07, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — President Bush urged Western Hemisphere nations Monday to continue their progress toward democracy, even as his administration suffered a setback in its bid to get countries to set democratic standards in the region.

Addressing a meeting of the Organization of American States, Bush said the hemisphere had undergone a "dramatic" democratic transformation.

"In 1974, the last time the OAS General Assembly met in the United States, fewer than half its members had democratically elected governments," Bush said. "Today, all 34 countries participating in this General Assembly have democratic, constitutional governments."

But Bush warned that "the dramatic gains for democracy we have witnessed in our hemisphere must not be taken for granted."

"Democratic change and free elections are exhilarating events," he said. "Yet, we know from experience they can be followed by moments of uncertainty. When people risk everything to vote, it can raise expectations that their lives will improve immediately."

The administration has in recent weeks been promoting a proposal to get the OAS to adopt what U.S. officials say are standards for democratic government.

Supporters of the proposal argue that the OAS, which usually becomes engaged only after a leadership crisis triggered by a coup or a similar event, should begin assessing countries' democratic institutions before they reach a breaking point. OAS delegates have debated whether to publicly cite countries found to be lagging in democratic governance, as is done with nations having poor records on human rights, drug prevention or corruption.

But Latin American countries, sensitive about perceived infringements on their sovereignty, have resisted the U.S.-backed proposal. Diplomats said they expected the group to agree on a weakened version of the plan, possibly today, the last day of the meeting.

Opposition to the plan was especially strong from Venezuela, which sees the proposal as a U.S.-led effort to pressure President Hugo Chavez, who has been increasingly at odds with the United States, diplomats said. Other South American countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, also have expressed opposition to the proposal since the three-day meeting began Sunday, diplomats said.

"To them 'democracy' means 'intervention,' " said one OAS ambassador, who asked to remain unidentified because of the political sensitivity of the issue. He added that many countries had been expected to react against the proposal, "but not with this kind of ferocity."

Ali Rodriguez, the Venezuelan foreign minister, said in an address to delegates that it was not the responsibility of the OAS "to carry out evaluations of the status of democracy in our countries."

"It is not the responsibility of anybody else, not under any pretext," Rodriguez added.

He said that in its 57-year history, the OAS had never been "an intervening body." To begin meddling now would be "breaching the fundamentals ... of government in the hemisphere," he said.

Jose Miguel Insulza, the Chilean interior minister who was named OAS secretary-general last month, told reporters the proposal should not be viewed as an effort to create "some sort of democracy police looking at every country to see how they are behaving."

Instead, Insulza said, the organization may consider an "early warning mechanism" that would involve OAS officials at earlier stages in a governmental crisis.

He suggested that OAS countries could become involved through discussions with civic and private groups. The approach would not involve sanctions, but could bring public attention and diplomatic pressure that could lead a targeted country's government to take action, other diplomats said.

Insulza, whose OAS appointment was supported by the United States, insisted that "nothing would be done without the permission of the government." Any action taken would not constitute "intervention," but "would soften a crisis, or at least give a better idea [of developments in a country] before a crisis occurs," he said.

Insulza said he did not believe that Venezuela merited this kind of attention, despite complaints from U.S. officials and others that Chavez had taken anti-democratic actions to curb the media and weaken the judiciary and his political opposition.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the United States would continue to press other OAS members to adopt a democracy monitoring mechanism, but acknowledged that the process might take time.

"I think the fact that they're having discussions about it is an important step, and let's let those discussions take place," McClellan told reporters prior to Bush's remarks.

The president, in his comments Monday, also said that a key way to strengthen democracies was by opening trade, adding that he was pressing for freer trade on several fronts.

He said he was trying to increase commerce through trading blocs and free trade agreements with countries such as Chile, Mexico and Canada.

Bush urged Congress to move quickly to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA, which would reduce tariffs on goods traded among the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Although the pact is among Bush's top legislative priorities, its prospects are uncertain. It is opposed by most Democrats and some Republicans who represent areas that depend on textile and sugar production.

Bush said the agreement "offers an historic opportunity" to the Latin American countries. "For the young democracies of Central America, CAFTA would bring new investment -- and that means good jobs and higher labor standards for their workers," he said.

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