Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said Sunday night the Organization of American States (search) must act to strengthen weak democracies to protect them against the possibility of a return to authoritarian rule.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search) rejected the proposal as an attempt by the United States to dominate Latin American countries through the OAS.
Rice, here for a meeting of OAS foreign ministers, said there is a consensus among the 34 nations in the OAS for a stronger presence in Latin America to deal with various challenges.
In a welcoming address to delegates Sunday evening, Rice said the "right to democracy" of hemispheric countries is enshrined in an OAS democratic charter ratified four years ago.
"We must act on this pledge," she said, citing Bolivia, Ecuador and Haiti as countries where the institutions of democracy are weak and need help.
"Wherever a free society is in retreat, a fear society is on the offensive," she said. "And the weapon of choice for every authoritarian regime is the organized cruelty of the police state."
President Bush will address the gathering on Monday. The OAS holds foreign ministers' meetings annually; this year's is the first held on U.S. soil since 1974.
Chavez, a foe of the Bush administration whose chief ally is Cuban President Fidel Castro, said in his weekly radio program to his countrymen that he sees Rice's effort as an intrusion on the sovereignty of hemispheric nations.
"The times in which the OAS was an instrument of the government in Washington are gone," Chavez said.
"Are they going to try, through the OAS, to monitor the Venezuelan government? ... Those who think they can put the peoples of Latin America in a corral are mistaken."
Brazil's response to Rice's appeal was more cautious. "We'd like to strengthen democracy in the region but we'd also like to avoid intruding mechanisms," Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said in a statement.
Shortly after Rice arrived, she held an informal discussion with her hemispheric colleagues behind closed doors. Afterward, she thanked the Venezuelan foreign minister, Ali Rogriguez, for his contribution to the discussion, a senior State Department official said.
Although Rice did not mention Venezuela by name in her evening speech, that country poses the biggest headache for the United States in the region. Chavez has tightened his grip on power through measures the Bush administration has described as undemocratic.
Chavez has accused the U.S. of trying to topple his government in 2002 and of interfering with a recall referendum last August that Chavez survived. The U.S. has denied both allegations.
"We need a range of mechanisms to deal with crises that threaten to subvert democracies throughout the region," Rice told reporters while en route here.
She said the OAS cannot carry out its pro-democracy mandate without the ability the provide assistance in times of crisis.
"This is not a matter of intervening to punish. It's a matter of intervening to try and sustain the development of democratic institutions across the region," she said.
Rice said too many countries in the hemisphere cannot meet the basic needs of their people, a situation that has persisted despite the consolidation of democracy over the past two decades.
The new OAS secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza of Chile, indicated support for Rice's proposal. He said there is a "persistent danger" of antidemocratic backsliding in the region, adding that OAS nations must cooperate to "reinforce democracy" where it is endangered.