SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Even though he wasn't the first U.S. choice, a Chilean politician who is slated to be the next chief of the Organization of American States (search) is pleasing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) because of his strong pro-democracy stand.
After a three-week deadlock, Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza was assured victory in the race for OAS secretary-general when rival candidate Luis Ernesto Derbez (search), the Mexican foreign secretary, withdrew.
The surprise outcome unfolded Friday in Santiago, Chile, where Rice was attending an international meeting on democracy while engaging in an a side effort to break an impasse between Insulza and Derbez ahead of an OAS vote in Washington on Monday.
U.S. officials said Derbez, endorsed by the United States, decided to withdraw his bid in the interest of enabling the OAS to rally behind a single candidate.
Derbez and a delegation of Latin American diplomats who were supporting his candidacy called on Rice at midmorning to inform her that he was withdrawing.
The formal announcement was made later by Colombian Foreign Minister Carolina Barco as Insulza and Derbez looked on.
Rice later flew to El Salvador, her last stop on a four-nation hemispheric tour that also took her to Brazil and Colombia. She had discussions late Friday with President Tony Saca.
Insulza said his goals as secretary-general will be the "strengthening, protecting and promoting" democracy in the hemisphere.
Citing the 2001 OAS Democratic Charter (search), Insulza said governments in the hemisphere that are not democratically elected "should be held accountable by the OAS."
The Bush administration is attaching importance to the charter as a means of pressuring Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to halt what U.S. officials perceive to be an erosion of democratic principles under Chavez and a drift toward authoritarian rule.
Insulza's remarks on democracy echoed sentiments expressed by Rice throughout her Latin American tour, which began Monday.
U.S. officials were uncertain about the Chilean's pro-democracy stance until he spoke to reporters after the noontime announcement of Derbez's withdrawal.
Earlier this month, Insulza and Derbez were deadlocked at 17 votes apiece in balloting at a special OAS foreign ministers meeting in Washington. The vote count remained the same through five ballots.
Chavez had endorsed Insuzla's candidacy early on, but the Chilean gave no indication he would decline to enforce to the letter the Venezuelan leader's full compliance with OAS charter principles.
Chavez agreed only reluctantly to sign the charter when it came into being in 2001.
After a late-night meeting with El Salvador's Saca, Rice was asked whether the charter takes on special significance in light of the growing centralization of power in Venezuela under Chavez's rule.
She said only that the charter should apply to all hemisphere governments, Venezuela included.
Rice has repeatedly declined to openly criticize Chavez during her travels, saying she preferred to talk about the administration's "positive agenda" toward the hemisphere.
One of Chile's top political figures, Insulza, 62, is known by the nickname "The Panzer" for his political weight and influence.
A lawyer who has been a Chilean Cabinet official for 10 years, he served as foreign affairs minister before being named interior minister by President Ricardo Lagos, a close friend and fellow socialist.
Insulza was exiled for more than a decade in Mexico and Italy by the rightest military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990.
The position of secretary-general opened up last fall when the former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez resigned after less than a month in office following allegations of financial wrongdoing at home.