Missed signals

June 14, 2005

THE ORGANIZATION of American States snubbed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week by rebuffing her calls for a committee to monitor the democratic practices of member nations. Instead, the OAS General Assembly approved a declaration calling for a greater focus on fighting poverty in Latin America, citing the creation of decent jobs, liberalized trade and an effective multilateral financial system as priorities that would ultimately reinforce democratic stability in the region.

The unspoken message of the OAS action: The Bush administration can't just ignore us and then expect us to get on board with plans that suit its political interests.

That Latin American foreign ministers and ambassadors were so willing to publicly disagree with the administration's policy goals - the OAS secretary-general said members viewed the monitoring idea as "some sort of democratic police force" - says much about how far removed the United States is from the region's key concerns. While President Bush is busy trumpeting democracy, Latin leaders are thinking economy.

One need only look at the recent implosion of Bolivia to understand why. Three presidents have quit under pressure there in the last five years, the latest last week, hastened from power by a population impatient with the country's slow economic progress. Ecuador's president suffered the same fate last April, while Peru's and Nicaragua's are on shaky ground.

The Latin American diplomats, many of them representing young democracies, recognize that the success of democracy is often contingent on the defeat of poverty. They seemed to be saying, correctly, that by helping them fight regional deprivation more aggressively, the United States could help them overcome obstacles to full democracy more effectively.

The OAS gathering in Florida, the first in this country in 30 years, was an opportunity for the administration to build on long-standing ties to Latin America, to reiterate its support for countries that have shown good economic policies and sound democratic reforms, and to outline what role the United States would play in helping shore up those that have not. Instead, Ms. Rice tried to push through a good-for-us-good-for-you plan that many Latin American diplomats didn't think was so good for their countries. Several said they believed the monitoring plan was more about getting OAS members to line up against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the United States' left-leaning nemesis du jour, than protecting the region's interests. Many have also not forgotten the administration's premature support for a short-lived 2003 coup against Mr. Chavez.

If there were one signal coming out of the OAS meeting that Ms. Rice should heed, it is that a Latin America that collectively looks askance at the United States and views its policies as disingenuous is not one that will be as open to American influence as it once was.

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