AFTER YEARS of neglecting Latin America and the Caribbean, the Bush administration has finally turned its attention to that part of the world. The move is both timely and welcome, given recent political upheavals in the region, but there are signs that the renewed diplomacy is likely to be strained.
This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got a cool reception from members of the Organization of American States (OAS) when she called for a permanent regional oversight committee to monitor Western Hemisphere countries and ensure they are upholding democratic practices. The reaction was not surprising.
The American plan calls for strengthening OAS' oversight and allowing the organization to take action against elected leaders of member countries who do not follow a democratic code of conduct. How such action would be implemented is still unclear, but Ms. Rice, who hosted the meeting of the OAS General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sunday, said the body would have to develop a "mechanism to help states that are going through challenges."
Given the swift and negative responses of several Latin American diplomats, Ms. Rice might as well have said that help would come by way of intervention, an option she did not rule out. The Latin American officials' reaction is an indication of their nervousness about the lately tough-talking Bush administration and its stated policy of pressing democracy around the world. It also reflects the diplomats' discomfort with meddling in the affairs of neighboring countries, in particular Venezuela, which is on bad terms with the Bush administration and which, some believe, is the real target of the proposal.
While strong democracies thriving throughout the Americas is ideal, it should happen through consistent American engagement, not American might. The region has suffered setbacks while the administration was preoccupied elsewhere. Four democratically elected presidents have been forced from office by popular uprisings in the last four years. The president of Bolivia offered to step down Monday. Several countries have swung leftward, frustrated by stagnant economies and widespread poverty. Anti-Americanism is on the rise.
Haiti, the current hotspot in the region, is in a precarious state with civil unrest overwhelming any semblance of control by the U.S.-backed provisional government. Yet the Bush administration has left peacekeeping efforts to the United Nations while insisting Haiti hold to its schedule for elections next fall despite significant barriers, such as fear and bloodshed, to registering voters.
The United States has much fence-mending to do before it can convince its neighbors that more-aggressive oversight would not just serve the United States' interests but would strengthen all the Americas. Only when the OAS' 34 member nations are convinced the administration is committed for the long haul will they enlist as willing partners, not as strong-armed or reluctant participants.