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Bush pushes bid to strengthen OAS


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - President Bush, concentrating yesterday on the fragility of democracies close to home, warned the Organization of American States of menaces lurking over Latin American and Caribbean nations and emphasized the economic and political dividends of free trade.

But a U.S. campaign to strengthen the OAS and help it fortify Latin American democracies - and prevent some from collapsing - appeared headed for a setback during the group's conference here.

The U.S. wants to create an early-warning mechanism that would help the OAS intervene during a crisis. However, key nations are rejecting the initiative in a battle that is polarizing the group during its three-day annual general assembly.

"Madam Secretary, democracy cannot be imposed," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, official host of the conference, which is scheduled to end today.

As delegates from the organization's 34 member nations gave speeches and interviews, Bolivia's capital, La Paz, was largely paralyzed by tens of thousands of protesters, and President Carlos Mesa offered to resign - for the second time this year. In 2003, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was forced to resign amid violent street protests.

Shifting his attention from the Middle East to Latin America, Bush said democracy in the region cannot be taken for granted and that free trade would elevate living standards in the hemisphere and help stabilize it.

"An Americas linked by trade is less likely to be divided by resentment and false ideologies," Bush said during a 13-minute speech.

More than 2,100 diplomats and others are at the conference, officially devoted to expanding democracy in a region where 14 elected governments have been toppled since 1989.

"An Americas where all our people live in prosperity will be more peaceful," Bush said. "And an Americas whose countries have reduced the barriers to trade among ourselves will be a more competitive region in a global economy."

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