Washington -- The Bush administration's
agenda for Latin America has achieved some notable successes
in recent years, although serious regional challenges remain,
says Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western
As he prepares to leave the State Department
to rejoin the private sector, Noriega was interviewed by
the Voice of America on September 2, offering his assessment
of developments in the Western Hemisphere during his government
Noriega cited the completion of the Inter-American
Democratic Charter, approved unanimously by member nations
of the Organization of American States in September 2001,
as a signal accomplishment. The Inter-American Democratic
Charter declares that "the peoples of the Americas
have a right to democracy and their governments have an
obligation to promote and defend it."
He also pointed to the Bush administration's
willingness to link its trade policy with concrete programs
to strengthen democratic institutions and promote good governance
in the Western Hemisphere.
Expanding free trade throughout the hemisphere
is an important goal for the United States, he said. According
to Noriega, steady progress on that front is already in
evidence, even as the United States continues to work toward
the eventual establishment of a hemisphere-wide free-trade
zone. Meanwhile, "the fact that we have trade promotion
authority," granted by Congress to President Bush in
2002, has made it possible for the United States to negotiate
free-trade agreements with the Andean countries, with Chile,
and with Central America and the Dominican Republic, he
When Bush and other U.S. officials travel
to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November to attend the next
Summit of the Americas, "our contribution to that is
not just showing up," said Noriega. "The United
States has a practical agenda" for the alleviation
of poverty in the region, among other urgent objectives.
On the subject of Colombia, which has suffered
for decades from a civil war being waged by armed groups
attempting to seize power from democratically elected leaders,
Noriega suggested that U.S. support for the administration
of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is proving effective
in helping authorities extend the government's presence
into previously lawless areas. "I think we're turning
the corner there, in a meaningful way," he said.
The main challenges in the region are "to
deliver good governance to people, to extend democracy so
that poor people can participate, to hold free and fair
elections, [and] to provide leadership that will deliver
the benefits of democracy to everyone," Noriega said.
"There is a general weakness of democratic institutions
that has to be addressed. Also, countries [throughout the
hemisphere] need to open up their economies, and make it
easier to open a business."
Of course, "these are hard things"
to achieve, but "the United States will help countries
that help themselves," he said. "Fortunately,
we do have partners in this hemisphere to work with"
on all of these issues.
With regard to anti-American feelings in
the region, which many analysts fear are on the rise, Noriega
said: "I think it's important to recognize that our
foreign policy in the Middle East doesn't enjoy a lot of
sympathy [around the hemisphere], but we're doing important
work there, and we need to do a better job of explaining
that to our friends" in the Americas.
And as people throughout the Western Hemisphere
increasingly recognize "our abiding commitment to the
democratic model, [and] to a free and fair trading system,"
perceptions about the United States are likely to become
more favorable, he predicted.
Although "there's a lot of unfinished
business here on the political and economic fronts, it's
important to note that we've made real progress," said
Noriega. "For example, in Bolivia, we've seen gains
on literacy and on reducing infant mortality." The
success of U.S.-funded programs in Bolivia and elsewhere
in the region serve as a reminder that "President Bush
has an energetic, vibrant strategy in the Americas"
that focuses on improving the quality of life for people
throughout the hemisphere, he said.
Noriega also commented on the widespread
devastation recently caused by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana,
Mississippi and Alabama, and the offers from many countries
to help the affected communities.
Asked whether the United States will accept
the assistance offered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,
whose actions and rhetoric are often regarded as virulently
anti-American, Noriega replied: "Sure, absolutely.
We've actually received offers from 15 countries in the
Americas, and dozens elsewhere; Mexico, Canada and Honduras
have offered support. The Paraguayans have offered firefighter
support. These are countries that have very close ties with
the communities in New Orleans," a city that sustained
some of the worst damage from the hurricane.
Noriega warmly praised the generosity of
the countries offering assistance, but said that decisions
about those offers still are pending. "We'll have to
sort out what we'll be able to accept, in terms of support,"
he said. "It will come down to logistics: what we need,
and when we need it."
At the same time, he dismissed the notion
that Chavez's overture might signal a shift in U.S.-Venezuela
relations, which have been strained since Chavez assumed
power. "We'll gladly accept the offer in the spirit
in which it's intended," but there are suspicions that
Chavez made the gesture primarily as a means of burnishing
his public image, said Noriega.
While Venezuela traditionally has been an
ally of the United States, Chavez has shown "a commitment
to changing his country's policies with an anti-American
slant," and those policies sometimes have created pressure
on neighboring countries like Bolivia and Ecuador at particularly
sensitive moments, Noriega added. The United States is concerned,
he said, because Chavez's brand of populism apparently has
contributed to political instability in those countries.
"We hope that Venezuela will respect
the right of people to choose their own leaders freely and
without interference in Bolivia and Ecuador," he said.
"Venezuela needs to respect those countries' sovereignty."
The assistant secretary said U.S. officials
would like to see a more robust response in the hemisphere
to Chavez's apparent attempts to undermine democratic safeguards
in Venezuela. Despite mounting evidence of Chavez's authoritarian
tendencies, "most [regional] countries are naturally
and understandably unwilling to confront Venezuela,"
said Noriega. "We're not asking for confrontation.
But you have to be willing to defend basic democratic values."
In response to a question about whether
Venezuela might be at risk of succumbing to a Cuban-style
dictatorship, Noriega reiterated his warning that democracy
must be vigorously defended to survive and prosper. A worst-case
scenario could develop "if Venezuelans aren't willing
to defend their basic values," he cautioned. But whatever
transpires, he said, "the United States will support
the right of Venezuela's citizens" to a democratic
system of governance.
Washington File Staff Writer