Bigger role for OAS urged

“We must replace excessive talk with focused action,” said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Speaking at the first OAS meeting in the United States in over three decades she added “we must never, never accept that democracy is merely an ideal to be admired instead of a purpose to be realised.”

The US hopes to convince reluctant Latin American governments at the meeting to approve a mechanism for strengthening regional democracy and to revitalise stalled free-trade efforts.

Recent events have raised concerns about whether the region’s progress toward democracy has stalled or even reversed.

In 1974, the last time the OAS met in the United States, many Latin American countries were ruled by dictatorships.

Now only one, Cuba, has failed to meet the standards of democratic rule necessary for continued OAS membership under the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

“The Democratic Charter must become the core of a principled, effective multilateralism for the Americas,” Ms Rice said. “Together we must insist that leaders who are elected democratically have a responsibility to govern democratically.”

She cited Bolivia, Ecuador and Haiti as countries where the institutions of democracy are weak and need help.

But critics say the US proposal is a way of trying to control Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s popular, left of centre government.

Washington has accused him of seeking to become a dictator and has openly courted his opponents.

But Caracas rejected the proposal as an attempt by the United States to dominate Latin American countries through the OAS.

“If any government of the OAS needs monitoring, it is that of the United States,” said President Chavez.

He claimed the US government is one “that supports terrorists, that runs over the rights of its own people, that intends to impose a global dictatorship”.

But Brazil’s response to Ms Rice’s appeal was more cautious.

“We’d like to strengthen democracy in the region but we’d also like to avoid intruding mechanisms,” said Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.

The debate over a stronger OAS role to protect democracy intensified last month after Ecuadoran president Lucio Gutierrez was sacked by the country’s Congress.

The present Bolivia government remains under siege.

Rich provinces demand regional autonomy just short of secession while impoverished workers and farmers push to nationalise the country’s lucrative natural gas industry.

The instability is threatening to tear the country apart and unleash a torrent of refugees to its neighbours.