-- President Bush on Monday urged nations of the Western Hemisphere to strengthen their democracies by embracing free-market economies and cracking down on corruption, while pointedly predicting that Cuba will ultimately be swept up in the tide of liberty that has engulfed other countries in the hemisphere.
"Democracy is the rule rather than the exception among nations in the Americas," Bush told foreign ministers and diplomats from 34 countries gathered here for the general assembly of the Organization of American States, but "only one country in this hemisphere sits outside this society of democratic nations -- and one day, the tide of freedom will reach Cuba's shores as well."
Bush, who since becoming president has increased pressure on the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro, quoted the 19th-century Cuban writer and revolutionary Jose Marti in calling liberty a birthright. "La libertad no es negociable," Bush said.
Bush's 13-minute speech also had some thinly veiled words for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of Castro who has become a hero in parts of Latin America by casting the United States as an imperialist power and who has stoked U.S. ire by nationalizing some businesses and stifling political dissent.
Bush said countries of the OAS have a stark choice between two competing visions: one that includes representative government, integration into world markets and a faith in freedom, and another that seeks to roll back democratic progress by "playing to fear, pitting neighbor against neighbor and blaming others for their own failures to provide for their people."
Bush administration policy toward Venezuela has sometimes contradicted its rhetoric on democracy. In 2002, the administration threw its weight behind the political opposition in that country by calling for early -- and unconstitutional -- presidential elections. The administration quickly modified its stance, calling for a referendum, something the constitution does allow. Earlier, the administration raised doubts among some about its commitment to democracy in the region when it quickly and prematurely recognized a short-lived government that ousted Chavez in a coup.
The relationship between the two countries has deteriorated further recently as Chavez has talked about developing nuclear power capabilities with the help of Brazil, Argentina and Iran. Also, Chavez has threatened to sever diplomatic relations with the United States unless it turns over Luis Posada Carriles, a CIA-trained anti-Castro radical who is wanted in Venezuela for retrial on charges that he blew up a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73 people. Last week, Bush hosted Maria Corina Machado, a top Venezuelan political activist, at the White House; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also met with her Monday on the sidelines of the conference.
The growing tensions between the United States and Venezuela have dominated the session here, with Venezuelan officials and their allies saying a U.S. proposal to bolster the OAS role in monitoring democratic developments is aimed at Venezuela. "The proposal was generic," Venezuela's foreign minister, Ali Rodriguez, told reporters. "But according to the reality in this moment, it seems as if it is aimed against a single country."
Diplomats said the U.S. proposal will be greatly watered down, though some sort of compromise is likely to emerge to address the U.S. suggestion.
The United States had circulated a proposal that called for a "mechanism" to monitor democratic trends, a phrase that a number of countries viewed as an invitation for U.S. meddling. "Democracy cannot be imposed. It is born from dialogue," Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, told the assembly.
Amorim noted to reporters that for all the United States' concerns, a recall referendum was held in Venezuela last year, watched by international observers, and Chavez won handily.
Rodriguez, in his speech, said the OAS charter has a policy of nonintervention and that "no country, no group of countries, no agency or body can evaluate or correct the political situation in other countries." He said that "we all have to abide by the fundamental principles that gave rise to the OAS."
OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, speaking with a small group of U.S. reporters, said it was uncertain whether a consensus on the American proposal could be reached before the three-day meeting ends Tuesday. He indicated he thought the notion of a "mechanism" would exceed the OAS charter, which allows intervention only at the invitation of the country. But he said the general idea of watching developments in OAS countries is useful and might leave the organization more prepared for crises.
But, despite the U.S. concerns about Venezuela, Insulza said he does not see a similar need to inquire about political conditions there. "All that we see in Venezuela is that groups and opposition say that the separation of powers is not very clear," he said. "But we don't have a full report on that."
Bush's address included a pitch for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. He said the pact, which would sharply lower trade barriers between the United States and five Central American nations and the Dominican Republic, would help provide access to lower-priced U.S. goods throughout the hemisphere, while expanding markets for American business.