The Miami Herald
Wed, June 08, 2005

OAS ends up with compromise on powers to guard democracy

In Fort Lauderdale, diplomats reached a convoluted compromise that, backers say, gives the OAS more power to protect democracies.


With Bolivia paralyzed by political chaos, the Organization of American States on Tuesday issued only a tepid call for calm in the South American country, but obliquely echoed some U.S. proposals at a Fort Lauderdale meeting to boost the OAS' power to protect democracies in the Americas.

A Chilean-sponsored resolution, which had been quietly negotiated on the sidelines for weeks, was embraced at the end of the OAS General Assembly, ending a bitterly divisive annual gathering of foreign ministers from the hemispheric bloc's 34 member nations. After heavy modifications, it became a fuzzy compromise that allowed all sides to claim victory.

Diplomats were putting the finishing touches on the resolution late Tuesday and hoped to later reword the Assembly-ending Declaration of Florida, drafted by the United States, to match the resolution, OAS officials said.

The first draft of the declaration gave the OAS a strong mandate to proactively keep countries on the democratic path. It also called for nongovernment activist groups to be given an official voice in OAS deliberations on whether member nations were straying from the path.

The Chilean resolution empowers OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to ''bring to the attention'' of the OAS' decision-making body ''those situations likely to lead to action'' under the Inter-American Democratic Charter, according to early drafts circulated at the Assembly. U.S. officials said that ''early warning'' function was one of their key goals.

''The bow is pointed in the right direction,'' said a member of the U.S. delegation.


The charter commits nations to protecting each other's constitutional order. But since it was implemented in 2001, four elected governments have been toppled by popular revolts, underscoring the widespread impression that the OAS is little more than a talk shop.

The resolution also instructed Insulza to come up with ''proposals and initiatives'' of ways to avert future democratic collapses and give ''wider'' participation to civil society groups, a U.S. official said. But it was not immediately clear whether the oblique wording meant the initiatives would be approved.

''This resolution is done in OAS style,'' John Maisto, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, told The Herald.

While its stated goal was to strengthen the OAS' ability to deal with challenges to democratic rule, the institution seemed powerless before the situation in Bolivia, where President Carlos Mesa tendered his resignation to Congress on Monday after weeks of street violence by Indian and leftist groups in the capital, La Paz.

OAS foreign ministers Tuesday agreed only on a six-point statement offering the bloc's help ``to facilitate dialogue as a means of surmounting the crisis and guaranteeing the preservation of democratic institutions.''

It called on Bolivian officials to address the political turmoil there ``promptly, through dialogue, in a peaceful fashion, and with respect for human rights.''

But under OAS procedures, the bloc could not send a peacemaking mission to Bolivia unless the country requested it -- which Mesa's government did not.

The procedure was put in place because of concerns by member countries over unwanted foreign meddling in their internal affairs -- the same concerns cited at Fort Lauderdale by some diplomats to object to some of the U.S. proposals.

Bolivian Foreign Minister Juan Ignacio Siles del Valle asked to address the OAS earlier than scheduled Tuesday because of the crisis, but then made no mention of a peacemaking mission and merely told delegates that he was confident his country would be able to ``find a solution to the grave moments it is going through.''

Insulza alluded to the OAS weakness when he spoke about the Bolivian situation early in the day's deliberations. ''Naturally, it is inconceivable that the OAS do nothing,'' he told delegates.

Suspicion of U.S. motives was so deep, in fact, that many delegates even expressed opposition to the proposal to give the nongovernment groups a voice in the OAS, an initiative backed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, several think tanks and former presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Brazil's Fernando Hernique Cardoso.


Venezuela and other nations also balked at U.S. initiatives to create a mechanism to evaluate democracies, independent of governments and possibly staffed by outside organizations.

''Who evaluates whom? And who elected the nongovernmental groups that do the evaluating?'' asked María Hernández, Venezuela's deputy foreign minister for North America, in a conversation with The Herald.

The foreign ministers from the OAS' 14 Caribbean island members expressed concern about the issue, noting that the U.S. government and Haitian business and activist groups helped force democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to resign last year.

U.S. officials tried to play down the differences over the wording of the Declaration of Florida, noting that getting 34 nations to agree to revamp procedures was no easy task.

''This is a multilateral [meeting],'' said Roger Noriega, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America and the Caribbean and the head of the U.S. delegation after Rice returned to Washington on Monday. ``You don't slam-dunk things.''

Noriega also sparked an exchange of barbs with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Alí Rodríguez when he seemed to hint that Chávez was somehow responsible for the worsening situation in Bolivia. Some Latin American and U.S. officials have long alleged that Chávez has provided financial assistance to Bolivian opposition leader Evo Morales.

''Chávez's profile in Bolivia has been very apparent from the beginning,'' Noriega said when asked about Chavez's role in the turmoil in Bolivia. ``His record is apparent and speaks for itself.''

Rodríguez said he ''indignantly'' denied the allegations and added that although the job of diplomats is to try to put out fires, ``it seems that he goes around seeking to throw fuel on the fire.''

Bolivian government officials and Western diplomats in the region have told The Herald that while the allegations of Chávez's financial aid to Morales are widespread, there has been no hard evidence to support the charges.

Herald staff writers Jacqueline Charles and Jane Bussey contributed to this report.