The Midas Curse of the Bush Administration

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 9, 2005; 5:57 PM

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Bush administration is suffering from a Midas curse of sorts in its interaction with the Americas. Everything it touches -- everything Bush officials consider valuable and essential -- becomes suspect or is rejected by most governments in the hemisphere.

This is so despite signs of a more nuanced understanding of the region under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who played host here this week to the Organization of American States' annual general assembly. Rice offered what seemed a modest but forward-thinking proposal to create a more formal avenue for civil society groups -- an eclectic cluster of nongovernmental organizations that gather individuals to lobby governments for change -- to participate in the OAS mission of defending democracy in the hemisphere.

Washington proposed a mechanism to hold democratic governments "accountable'' and "anticipate crises,'' rather than just relying on governments' commitment to do so. Those in civil society, the "impatient patriots'' as Rice called them, would play a central monitoring role and inspire leaders to deliver the benefits of democracy more fully. "We, the members of the OAS,'' she said, "must ourselves be impatient. We must replace excessive talk with focused action.''

The idea makes a lot of sense. People throughout the Americas are growing increasingly frustrated with democratically elected leaders who are unable to address their concerns. Civil society groups, such as the Venezuelan electoral monitoring organization Sumate, provide an avenue for those people to gather and channel their energies toward positive results rather than destructive actions. In addition, they can monitor democracy as home-grown third parties that are not necessarily tied to a U.S. agency or perceived agenda.

Yet by the time Bush officials arrived to sell the initiative to the hemisphere's foreign ministers gathered here, many delegates seemed determined to weaken it or destroy it outright. Ever skeptical of Washington's motivations, they believed the proposal was cynical cover for more intervention in the region.

That sentiment was reinforced by the very meeting that was to symbolize the initiative's promise. Last week, President Bush met with Maria Corina Machado, the founder of Sumate, who were instrumental in last year's recall vote against President Hugo Chavez.

At the OAS gathering, many Latin American diplomats and observers saw Bush's 50-minute talk with Machado as an attempt to manipulate a civil society organization to spite an opponent. The meeting became a symbol of Washington's hard-line anti-Chavez agenda.

Any positive effect from the Bush-Machado meeting was lost on those who saw it only as a polarizing strategy by the United States. This created a situation in which Washington got an "exaggerated rejection'' of an important idea in favor of democracy, said Arturo Valenzuela, who directed Latin American affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

Still, the meeting with Machado may very well have served to protect her. She is currently under investigation in Venezuela, accused by the Chavez government of receiving a $30,000 grant from the Washington-based National Endowment of Democracy to hold workshops on political parties and civics. She is facing a judicial fight for something that is legal most anywhere else (and particularly crucial in Venezuela), as Chavez's propaganda machine attempts to demonize her in official publications.

That's Chavez. The rest of the region, however, looked just as intolerant in the way it rejected the Bush proposal. At one point during the assembly, delegates even closed deliberations on the role of civil society groups in democracy and excluded from that debate all non-official participants, including those nongovernmental organizations who had been invited.

By the time the final Declaration of Florida was released, all that was left of Washington's boldness was a watered-down agreement to restate the vague and feeble commitment already made by at least two previous assemblies for "increasing and strengthening civil society participation in OAS activities.''

Some of the delegates said that they believe U.S. officials behind some of the administration's hard-line policies are on their way out the door. That would be a welcome development for a Bush administration that needs to recognize and remedy its extreme choices of the past.

As if to follow a more conciliatory approach to the region, the Bush administration put a constructive idea on the table at the OAS assembly. But until Latin America starts to see U.S. initiatives in a new light, the cure to the Midas curse will remain out of reach.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


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