- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Frustration with the shortcomings of democracy has boosted popular support for leftist and authoritarian politicians across Latin America, Bush administration officials warned yesterday.

The inauguration March 1 of Tabare Vazquez as president of Uruguay was the latest in a string of electoral victories for leftist and populist candidates. One of the first acts of Mr. Vazquez, a doctor and former mayor of Montevideo, upon taking office was to restore diplomatic ties with Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

“Many individuals in the hemisphere are frustrated by the perceived inability of democracies to deliver the benefits to all citizens in equal measure,” Roger F. Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told a House International Relations subcommittee yesterday.

“Some, in their frustration, are turning in increasing numbers to politicians who promise populist solutions to the region’s persistent problems or else entertain thoughts of a return to authoritarianism,” he said.

Aside from sharp clashes with Mr. Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Bush administration has taken a low-key line on gains made by leftist and socialist parties in Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who travels to Mexico today on her first trip south of the border since taking office, told the Spanish-language Univision network in an interview that the United States would work with democratically elected leaders, whatever their politics.

“Whether it is left, right, right-of-center, left-of-center, as long as it’s within the democratic structure of these countries, I think the United States has to respect that,” she said.

Mr. Noriega said the political situation in Central and South America is vastly better than it was even 20 years ago, when dictators and military coups were the norm for many countries.

But he conceded that polls show deep disenchantment in many Latin countries with democratic government, which has failed to solve deep-rooted problems, such as poverty, corruption and crime.

Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, who chaired yesterday’s hearing, said, “There can be little doubt that democracy is under serious threat in many parts of the Western Hemisphere.

“Simply promoting democracy as an alternative to socialism or totalitarianism will not be enough,” he said, urging a more active U.S. role in supporting economic and political reform throughout the region.

Seth DeLong, a senior research fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said even the new leftist leaders who are committed democrats pose a challenge to the Bush administration, rejecting many of the free-market “neoliberal” policies pushed by Washington.

Mr. Noriega said the United States will support its democratic allies throughout the region. But he said that ultimately, the political and economic health of the hemisphere cannot be dictated from Washington.

“There is simply no substitute for strong local leadership willing to make tough decisions and embrace civil society as a key contributor to policy debates,” he said.

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