Analysis by Mario Osava*

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 9 2005 (IPS) — The U.S. government, whose proposal was voted down this week in the Organisation of American States (OAS), is piling up defeats in Latin America because of a vision of the region that is “distorted” by its “war on terrorism,” according to analysts.

Washington has an erroneous perception of Latin America not only because it is concentrating its attention on other regions, like the Middle East – especially the war in Iraq – but also because it looks at this region “through the ‘fight against terrorism’ lens,” Clovis Brigagao, director of the Centre of Studies on the Americas at the University of Rio de Janeiro, told IPS.

The 35th OAS general assembly, which ended Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, approved a declaration that discarded a U.S. proposal for the creation of a mechanism to evaluate and “oversee” democracies in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has argued that it is not enough for governments to be democratically elected; they must also govern in a democratic manner.

She also noted that several countries in the region are facing crises threatening the institutions of democracy.

The case of Ecuador (where then President Lucio Gutiérrez was removed in April after massive protests), and the current social upheaval in Bolivia (where President Carlos Mesa offered to resign Monday for the second time in less than three months) are concrete examples.

But analysts agree that the true target of such statements by Washington is Venezuela, which is ruled by left-leaning President Hugo Chávez, an outspoken critic of many of the policies followed by the George W. Bush administration.

The OAS has no mandate to evaluate democracies in the region, said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Alí Rodriguez.

His Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim, meanwhile, said democracy “cannot be imposed, but is born of dialogue,” reflecting the consensus reached in the Declaration of Florida, the final statement signed by the ministers meeting in Fort Lauderdale.

But this was just the latest of a string of U.S. defeats suffered in the region since it failed to obtain Latin American support in the United Nations Security Council for its 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In April, Washington’s first choice as candidate for secretary-general of the OAS, former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores, was forced to pull out of the race because of a lack of support from the rest of the hemisphere. The U.S. then shifted its backing to Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, who in the end was beat out by Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza.

And back in November 2004, the main U.S. initiatives were voted down in the sixth conference of defence ministers of the Americas in Quito, Ecuador.

Despite support from Central American nations, the proposal to make national sovereignty subordinate to the Inter-American Defence Board in security questions was not approved. Nor was the idea of concentrating resources on the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.

Another proposition that was not accepted was the idea of drawing up a list of terrorist organisations, whose members would be denied visas and subject to arrest.

Added to all of these lost battles was the suspension of negotiations for the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), because of the resistance of many countries, especially Brazil, to the terms set by the United States.

This series of failures is due to “waning interest,” since “Latin America has become a lower priority for the United States,” Rosendo Fraga, director of the New Majority Centre think-tank in Argentina, commented to IPS.

“Today a defeat in the OAS is not such a big deal for Washington as it was during the Cold War,” he said.

For Jorge Chabat, professor of international studies at Mexico’s Centre for Economic Research and Teaching, “it is no longer so easy for the United States to set the agenda in Latin America,” although it cannot be said that Washington no longer has influence and power in the region.

“On some issues, Washington cannot make a move on its own, but seeks and needs support,” because if it imposed its will, “as it did in the past, it would pay very high costs,” he added.

Chabat also agrees that the region has lost importance for Washington, which is saving up on its diplomatic resources, and prefers “consensus and even an apparent defeat,” because “it is not interested in spending on things that are not priorities, and Latin America no longer is, for now.”

The loss of interest became very evident during George W. Bush’s first term (2001-2005), when Latin America was free to “forge new alliances,” like the Group of 20 developing nations in the World Trade Organisation, or the Group of Three formed by Brazil, India and South Africa, said Brigagao.

But there has been a change since Bush’s reelection in 2004, as reflected by the Latin America tours made by Rice and U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this year. The problem is that the Latin America policy of the current administration lacks direction, as it is subordinate to an “interventionist” fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, said the Brazilian analyst.

Besides, “Latin America has matured,” with “more balanced governments and greater confidence in democracy,” as reflected in the OAS Democratic Charter and other mechanisms like the democracy clauses in subregional trade blocs, including the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and the Andean Community, he added.

Brazil is playing a key role in that process because it has economic interests and investments in many Latin American countries today and a significant level of foreign trade with the rest of the region.

That gives it an interest in stability in those countries, and has led it to “occupy part of the space that was once filled by the United States,” Brigagao noted.

* With additional reporting by Diego Cevallos in Mexico and Marcela Valente in Argentina.


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