FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – President Bush touted his proposals for a hemisphere-wide free trade agreement, saying it will open the way to peace and prosperity for all nations of the Americas and reduce the attraction of "false ideologies."
Speaking to an Organization of American States foreign ministers meeting, Bush also appealed to the U.S. Congress to approve the Central-America-Dominican Republic free trade accord, calling it a "historic opportunity to bring prosperity to people who have never known it."
The 34-nation OAS is debating how far the hemispheric community should go to rescue countries where political instability threatens democratic survival.
Bush did not address the issue directly but said the OAS Democratic Charter assures all people of the Americas of the "right to democracy," echoing comments Sunday night by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a speech to the conference.
"We must act on our charter to support democracy where it is threatened," Rice said. "Wherever a free society is in retreat, a fear society is on the offensive. And the weapon of choice for every authoritarian regime is the organized cruelty of the police state."
She singled out Bolivia, Ecuador and Haiti as countries that need help in overcoming chronic instability.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search), delivering a radio address to his countrymen, said the U.S. proposal is a ploy to justify U.S. intervention in the hemisphere.
"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."
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez told a news conference Monday after Bush's speech that, although the U.S. pro-democracy proposal was not explicit, "it seems aimed at one country" — his own.
And in a speech to the conference before Bush's arrival, Rodriguez said the OAS charter is "extremely clear" in demanding a policy of non-intervention" in the internal affairs of member states.
Although Rice did not mention Venezuela by name in her remarks, the Bush administration believes that Chavez has been engaged in a systematic power grab, putting Venezuelan democracy at risk.
Rice said she hoped to reach agreement with her OAS colleagues on mechanisms to protect endangered democracies.
Brazil and several other countries were working on a counterproposal to an American draft document. "We'd like to strengthen democracy in the region but we'd also like to avoid intruding mechanisms," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said in a statement.
OAS foreign ministers meet annually, and the gathering here is the first held on U.S. soil since 1974.
At that time, military governments dominated Latin America. During the 1980s, all military regimes returned power to elected governments but Rice acknowledged in her speech that democracy has not benefited many of the region's citizens, contributing to widespread discontent.
Rice planned to return to Washington on Monday night. The deliberations here end on Tuesday.