News Analysis

“Madam Secretary, democracy cannot be imposed,” said Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, in reply to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the 35th General Assembly of the Organization of the American States (OAS). “Latin America has its own identity,” he said. “It has recuperated its dignity — not to confront the United States, but to confront imperialist politics.”

That was the kind of roughing up Bush officials faced at the first OAS meeting hosted on U.S. soil in 31 years, this time in Ft Lauderdale, Fla. The OAS was set up in 1951, and shortly became an instrument of U.S. cold war politics.

The Assembly turned aside U.S. proposals directed against the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela, as it passed declarations supportive of both national independence and a common front against the region’s social and economic devastation. Only a month earlier, in an unprecedented move, the OAS had rejected Washington’s choice for OAS leader in favor of Chilean diplomat Jose Miguel Insulza.

Speaking to reporters, Secretary of State Rice, apparently alluding to the need to intervene in Venezuela, declared, “The OAS has intervened in the past,” adding, “It is a matter of intervening to try and sustain the development of democratic institutions.” In an address to the Assembly June 7, President Bush said, “We must replace excessive talk with action.”

The U.S. government offered a “Declaration of Florida,” which would have authorized OAS-sponsored military interventions in member countries on behalf of “democracy.” The Assembly ultimately voted 28-6 to back a watered-down version of the resolution, holding that OAS interventions would have to wait on an invitation from an elected head of a targeted government.

The OAS Assembly passed eight out of nine resolutions introduced by Venezuela. One of them, offered in response to the U.S. interventionist proposal, stated that “for there to be world peace there must be respect for sovereignty.” Another condemned media concentration and rejected “support of hate” in the media. Still another called for member nations to “commit themselves not to support terrorists that are wanted for crimes in other countries,” a clear reference to U.S. sanctuary provided to Cuban-exile terrorist Luis Posada Carriles.

Delegates backed the social and economic rights of Latin America’s estimated 240 million poor. As Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez noted: “In these conditions quality of life simply doesn’t exist, adding, “Where the calamities of hunger and poverty exist, democracy is in doubt and human rights are a fiction.” The Assembly’s final declaration incorporated a Venezuelan resolution calling for adoption of a “Social Charter of the Americas.”

Roger Noriega, U.S. Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, staged a “temper tantrum,” in the words of one reporter. Apparently reacting to Washington’s failure to have its way, Noriega proclaimed that Venezuelan money and influence were behind unrest in Bolivia, a charge immediately dismissed by the Venezuelans.

Secretary of State Rice met June 5 with Maria Corina Machado, head of the Venezuelan group Sumate, accused of bringing in National Endowment for Democracy funds in the efforts to defeat Hugo Chavez at the polls. Machado took part in the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez, and is reportedly preparing to oppose him in the 2006 presidential elections.

The week before, Machado met with President Bush in the White House. By contrast, Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to Washington, has been waiting two months to meet with U.S. State Department officials.

Outside the Assembly, police from 26 agencies stopped delegates’ cars at roadblocks, searching them with dogs and metal detectors. The Mexican daily La Jornada reported that journalists required a State Department escort to approach OAS delegates.

Some 20 Secret Service agents detained Venezuelan reporter Lyng-Hou Ramirez. She came under suspicion when police, searching her bag, found an OAS document on human rights. Agents reportedly refused to verify her credentials with the OAS. After all, they said, “They don’t make the rules, we do.”