May 22, 2005
U.S. Proposal in the O.A.S. Draws Fire as an Attack on Venezuela
By JOEL BRINKLEY
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WASHINGTON, May 21 - 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
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
"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,
"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
Senior State Department officials said they consulted principal allies in
the region as they drafted the plan. Asked for names, they cited Argentina
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.