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U.S. Seeks Stronger Democracy, Open Trade in the Americas

State's Roger Noriega assesses regional progress, challenges

Posted: September 7, 2005

Roger Noriega /VOA (AP Photo)
Roger Noriega
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 Hemisphere affairs.

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 tenure.

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 said.

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.

Lauren Monsen
Washington File Staff Writer






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