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US Proposal in the OAS

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By Joel Brinkley

New York Times
May 22, 2005

An American proposal to create a committee at the Organization of American States that would monitor the quality of democracy and the exercise of power in Latin America is facing a hostile reception from many countries in part because it is being viewed as a thinly veiled effort to attack Venezuela.


Roger F. Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and a principal architect of the proposal, said in an interview this week that he was "not surprised they are seeing this in the context of Venezuela," but he added, "I am determined that it not be regarded as some kind of effort to isolate Venezuela."

Last month, however, he and other administration officials made several statements tying the effort directly to their concern about Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's populist, anti-American president. Mr. Chávez has curtailed some press freedoms and judicial independence while forming close ties with Cuba, an alliance that, more than anything else, infuriates some Bush administration officials.

The relationship between the United States and Mr. Chávez, which was already tense, deteriorated in 2002, after the United States tacitly backed a coup that briefly toppled him. The animosity has deepened since then, which is one reason many Latin American envoys remain skeptical of the reasoning Washington offers for its proposal. "This explanation is going to be impossible to sell to any adult human being," said Rodolfo Hugo Gil, the Argentine ambassador to the Organization of American States.

Jorge Chen, the Mexican ambassador, said, "I don't think this idea will pass." Some Latin American ambassadors say they fear that the new committee will turn into a star chamber, where ministers would summon representatives of certain countries for interrogation and criticism. United States officials strongly dispute that and say they are simply trying to make the organization more relevant and effective.

"All we are doing is creating a mechanism, a procedure," Mr. Noriega said. An American official added that "we do think there should be accountability when countries violate the O.A.S.'s democratic charter." Mr. Chen said he had hoped that any plan "would not be something that comes from on high" - alluding to Latin America's longstanding concern about the United States imposing its will on the region.

The American proposal is to be offered for approval during a meeting of the regional organization in early June in Florida. It emerged from a statement made last month in Santiago, Chile, by José Miguel Insulza, the organization's newly elected secretary general, at the insistence of American officials. "The elected governments that do not govern democratically should be held accountable by the O.A.S.," he said as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood beside him. Ms. Rice and other American officials had wrested that remark from him in exchange for American support for his candidacy. Immediately afterward, senior American officials told reporters traveling with Ms. Rice that Mr. Insulza's new plan would "hold the O.A.S. accountable for holding the Venezuelan government accountable for governing democratically," as one of them put it.

One official, underscoring Washington's primary concern about Mr. Chávez, said during that news conference, "Let's note that Chávez is in Havana consulting with the region's only dictator and his best friend." Then, in an internal e-mail message, sent to State Department officials and others just after he and Ms. Rice returned from Chile on April 30, Mr. Noriega wrote that "Insulza accepted without hesitation our exhortation that he make a public statement alluding to the Chávez threat."

Most Latin American leaders say they do not share Washington's concern about Mr. Chávez. "I don't think any country wants to take action against Venezuela," said Aristides Royo, the ambassador from Panama.

The Organization of American States represents 34 Western Hemisphere nations, from Canada to Argentina, and while it does debate large policy issues, the organization has been loathe to interfere in its members' internal affairs. The American proposal has not been made public, but several administration officials described it. Under the plan, the regional organization would create a new committee whose mission would be to hear from labor unions, lawyers, citizens groups and other nongovernmental organizations that have concerns about their governments. "There is no formal mechanism for this now," Mr. Noriega said. "The most they have been able to do is mill around outside the council chamber and hope to catch somebody."

If the committee found problems, it could propose diplomatic missions or other unspecified remedies. But the ambassadors said they feared that the very existence of the committee would prove highly embarrassing for the nations called before it. What is more, said Mr. Gil, "no one can be sure that in the future they would not be seated and judged by this committee in one year, two years, three years." "In Latin America," he added, "who knows what will happen."

Salvador E. Rodezno Fuentes, the Honduran ambassador, said: "We have to sit down and see what the United States means with this. I don't think some states are prepared for this."

Mr. Gil, the Argentine ambassador, said: "Every country has its problems. But I can tell you one thing: the most powerful countries will never be there." Senior State Department officials said they consulted principal allies in the region as they drafted the plan. Asked for names, they cited Argentina and Chile. Mr. Gil said he had not been consulted and strongly opposed the proposal. And Esteban Tomic, the ambassador for Chile, said his country had "absolutely not" been consulted. His government was given a copy recently, he said, "and we are examining it." "We have not formed a view," he said.

Underlying the hostility toward the proposal is a broader concern that the United States remains "fixated" on Venezuela, as one ambassador put it, while Latin American democracies are struggling to survive. "In many countries, people are asking, 'What is the value of democracy when I am still living in poverty?' " Mr. Tomic said. "Many countries are in serious peril. I would not like to point to Venezuela in particular when we still have these problems of poverty and extreme misery."

Several officials noted that, for all of Mr. Chávez's bluster, he is also using Venezuela's oil wealth to address social problems. But a senior American official who declined to be named because he did not want to inflame the debate with Latin American countries said Mr. Chávez's "prescriptions for poverty don't really work very well for countries that don't have vast oil wealth."

He added that the American proposal would actually address the concerns voiced by Mr. Tomic and others. By bringing citizen groups before the committee, the official said, "we are creating a place where you can hear the voice of the people." "And that is a healthy thing," the official added.


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