- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Half-full hopes

Ambassador Luis Laredo is an optimist when it comes to democracy.

The U.S. envoy to the Organization of American States (OAS) looks at the Western Hemisphere and sees 34 democracies in the 35 countries of North, Central and South America.

"I look at the glass and see it half full," he told editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday.

Sometimes counting democracies takes a little imagination.

Clearly, Cuba is not one, Mr. Laredo said, describing Fidel Castro's government as the only remaining dictatorship in the region.

"It is a failed system that cannot provide a basic standard of living or fundamental freedoms," he said.

Haiti is more difficult to squeeze into the democratic camp, with its political instability, judicial corruption and human rights abuses.

"It is an imperfect democracy," Mr. Laredo said, adding that the May 21 municipal and legislative elections will be a "big test."

"There are people who will say democracy is not suitable to all cultures. I do not accept that," he said. "We need to nurture the institutions. We Americans tend to look at things in a very short time frame. Haiti is not even halfway there, but we need to stay engaged."

Another problem area is Peru, where the OAS is keeping close watch on President Alberto Fujimori's authoritarian tendencies as he faces a runoff election for a third term on May 28.

"We have a very high-profile observer mission in Peru," he said.

The OAS mission has been monitoring the campaign instead of just observing the balloting on Election Day and complaining publicly when irregularities are spotted.

Mr. Laredo explained that the observers intended to "get there early and be very vocal."

"It is important that Peru holds this election. The world's eyes are on Peru," he said.

Today, elected but authoritarian governments can undermine democracy by eroding its two most important institutions, a free press and an independent judiciary, Mr. Laredo said.

"The new threats to democracy are very subtle and more dangerous," he said, explaining that the old threats, dictatorships and military coups, are largely a remnant of the past.

Mr. Laredo, who arrived at the OAS three months ago, said the organization is determined to act "as a moral authority" by promoting democracy and pressuring governments to respect it.

"Democracy is a culture, one of tolerance and respect for institutions over men," he said.

Japanese in mourning

The Japanese Embassy yesterday expressed its "profound grief" over the death of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

He died Sunday in Tokyo.

The embassy, located at 2516 Massachusetts Ave. NW, has opened a book of condolences, which can be signed today from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to noon.

Foreign affairs at home

Rep. Danny K. Davis told a group of foreign ambassadors a harsh reality: Americans don't care about foreign affairs unless it affects them directly.

The Illinois Democrat said he has gotten fewer than 100 questions about foreign policy in 120 town hall meetings he has held in his Chicago district.

Mr. Davis said business opportunities, not ideology, will affect how Americans view foreign affairs.

"If an Illinois farmer has a barn full of corn and knows that somebody in Cuba wants to buy it, then he's going to want to sell it. He won't care about Castro and some embargo. That's how new debates will get generated," he said.

Mr. Davis, speaking last week at a diplomatic forum organized by Washington lobbyist Edward von Kloberg, told Ambassador George Saliba of Malta that foreign policy will play a small role in the presidential campaign.

He told Ambassador Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis of Cyprus that the American news media and educational system operate in a "crisis mode" when it comes to reporting or teaching about other countries.

Ambassador Mamadou Seck of Senegal agreed with Mr. Davis, complaining that the media pay little attention to Africa, except for civil wars, famines and plagues.

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