A proposal by the United States to have the 34-country Organization of American States create a committee to monitor the state of democracy in member nations, such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Nica-ragua, is a superb idea. Problem is, it was presented by the United States.
Given the current wave of anti-American sentiment in Latin America, why didn't the Bush administration get another country to make the proposal, several Latin American diplomats were asking themselves Sunday at the annual OAS foreign ministers meeting's opening session.
Was it political arrogance, an oversight or incompetence, some asked.
"The way they handled this was very clumsy," a senior OAS official told me at the opening session Sunday. "They don't realize that they are like an elephant entering a bazaar -- the minute they come in, everybody runs for cover."
Jose Miguel Vivanco, a top official of the Human Rights Watch monitoring group, agrees that "the U.S. proposal is great, although I wish it had proposed it jointly with other countries."
Indeed, the so-called Declaration of Florida presented by the Bush administration was immediately branded by South American countries as a not-so-veiled U.S. effort to clamp down on Venezuela. Some ambassadors also complained it was distributed by the U.S. delegation at the very last minute in an effort to rush it through this meeting.
The draft U.S. declaration calls for strengthening the OAS 2001 Democratic Charter, which says countries in the region should apply collective diplomatic pressure when a member of the group breaks the rule of law or violates human rights. To its credit, the Bush administration echoed a demand by leading human rights groups and by political adversaries such as former President Jimmy Carter.
Under the U.S. proposal, democratically elected presidents "must govern democratically" and "those governments that do not must be held accountable." It calls on OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza to draft "a plan of action" with "the advice of outside experts and civil society" to monitor the state of democratic freedoms in member countries, much like the OAS's highly respected human rights commission does.
Predictably, Venezuela immediately denounced it as a U.S. plan to undermine the government of President Hugo Chavez and as a blatant intervention in its internal affairs.
"The OAS is an organization of member states. This proposal would turn it into an organization of civil society groups," says Jorge Valero, Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS.
Key South American countries are supporting Venezuela. At a closed-door meeting this weekend, the so-called ALADI group made up of South America and Mexico drafted an alternative final declaration of the OAS meeting. It says the OAS should promote democracy "within the principle of nonintervention (in countries' internal affairs) and the right to self-determination." And instead of calling for a plan of action, it calls for "a space for reflection" -- in other words, almost nothing.
Asked why the Bush administration didn't get another country to present the declaration, a U.S. official told me: "We want to take a stronger role in helping build democracy in the region."
Another U.S. official noted that host countries at OAS meetings often present the draft final declaration, adding that Chile would most likely present the resolution to implement it at Monday's session.
My conclusion: I hope I'm wrong on this one, but judging from the apparent U.S. desire to play "a stronger role" and from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's opening speech Sunday -- which devoted significant time to Florida, and to Cuba -- the Bush administration may be more interested in talking to a domestic audience than to the rest of Latin America. If that's the case, it's a big mistake.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.