Against the backdrop of growing tensions between the United States and Venezuela, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Sunday for nations in the Western Hemisphere to more actively support democracy and counter authoritarian trends in Latin America.
Speaking to foreign ministers and diplomats from 33 other countries gathered here for the general assembly of the Organization of American States, Rice said that governments in the Americas are no longer divided between liberal and conservative. The divide "is between those governments that are elected and govern democratically and those that do not."
Rice urged the OAS to "strengthen democracy where it is weak" and to "support democracy where it is threatened." But a U.S. proposal to empower the OAS to monitor democratic trends, as a way to head off problems, got a lukewarm reception, with some countries believing it would invite U.S. meddling.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has emerged as a nettlesome foe of the Bush administration, denounced the idea Sunday on his weekly radio program, accusing the United States of trying to impose a "global dictatorship" and forcing its will on the region.
"The times in which the OAS was an instrument of the government in Washington are gone," Chavez said in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. "Are they going to try, through the OAS, to monitor the Venezuelan government? . . . Those who think they can put the peoples of Latin America in a corral are mistaken," he said.
Chavez added: "If there is any government that should be monitored by the OAS, then it should be the U.S. government, a government which backs terrorists, invades nations, tramples over its own people, seeks to install a global dictatorship."
The United States for the first time in 31 years is the host of the annual three-day OAS meeting, and security here was extremely tight. Much of downtown was locked down, and a helicopter hovered above the hotel where Rice and other senior diplomats are staying. President Bush is set to address the meeting Monday.
Speaking to reporters as she flew here from Washington, Rice said the U.S. proposal was designed to make the organization more effective. "I think we have to have a discussion of how the organization can be effective if it does not have mechanisms that help at times of crisis," she said. "This is not a matter of intervening to punish. It's a matter of intervening to try and sustain the development of democratic institutions across the region."
Rice noted that an OAS unit declared the 2000 Peru presidential election to be illegitimate. But more recently, the OAS, which operates by consensus, has failed to act or has acted too late as nascent democratic trends suffered setbacks across the region. U.S. officials are promoting the idea of having nongovernmental groups or citizens raise complaints about a government through the OAS.
In her speech, Rice singled out countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Haiti -- where governments have recently fallen -- as places where "the institutions of democracy have perhaps brittle roots." She did not mention Venezuela by name -- U.S. officials have said they do not want the dispute with Venezuela to dominate the session -- but the subtext of her comments was clear.
"Wherever a free society is in retreat, a fear society is on the offensive," Rice said. "And the weapon of choice for every authoritarian regime is the organized cruelty of the police state."
U.S. officials say Chavez, who has been twice elected, is undermining democracy by centralizing authority and thwarting political opposition. The United States is the chief importer of Venezuelan oil, but Chavez flaunts his close association with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, says he may seek nuclear technology from Iran and suggests he may break off relations with the United States.
Tensions between the two countries have escalated in the past week. Bush was host to Maria Corina Machado, a top Venezuelan political activist, at the White House, infuriating the Venezuelan government. Rice will meet Machado on Monday, signifying the Bush administration's interest in elevating her prominence as a Chavez foe. Machado is head of Sumate, which helped organize a failed recall referendum against Chavez last year.
The United States also recently rejected an extradition request from Venezuela as inadequate. Venezuela hopes to enlist the OAS in its demand that the United States hand over Luis Posada Carriles, who is accused in a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. He has been charged with entering the United States illegally, but U.S. officials say they think Venezuela is interested only in publicity in demanding his extradition, not putting him on trial. Posada has been acquitted twice in Venezuela of the bombing.
Asked what she would say to the Venezuelan foreign minister, Rice told reporters traveling with her that the administration's consistent message has been that "if you are democratically elected, that you govern democratically as well" and that nations should not interfere in the affairs of their neighbors.