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U.S. Support for Democracy in Latin America?

USAID Official Cites U.S. Support for Democracy in Latin America

But Franco warns against corruption, inequality, weak institutions

Latin America has made great progress toward democratic consolidation over the last 25 years, but corruption, weak public institutions and inequality and poverty undermine this progress, says Adolfo A. Franco, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

In his September 28 testimony before the House International Relations Committee Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Franco outlined the challenges to democracy in Latin America and explained how USAID is working to address these challenges in such countries as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela.

Franco observed that 25 years ago only three countries in the region had democratically elected leaders, yet only Cuba continues under a dictatorship today. However, even though Latin America largely has adopted democratic practices such as elected civilian governments, peaceful transitions of power and basic civil liberties, Franco warned that corruption, weak institutions and economic inequality are undermining democratic consolidation. He told legislators that these problems, coupled with the inability of regional governments to provide basic services, are beginning to give rise to radical populism.

"Many LAC [Latin American and Caribbean] countries are held back by the powerful elite, weak government institutions and self-protecting political parties wielding unchecked authority fortified through amended constitutions, legal immunity, porous regulations and corruption," he said. "This contributes to the inability of Latin American countries to create opportunities for its citizenry and to provide the services needed to enable them to take advantage of these opportunities, and it makes the rhetoric of undemocratic, populist campaigns very enticing."

Franco said that the work of USAID is critical in confronting challenges and consolidating democracy in the region, and he noted how USAID is prepared to meet challenges surrounding upcoming elections in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela.

The U.S. official explained that USAID will support the December presidential and congressional elections in Bolivia, as well as that country's Constituent Assembly elections and referendum autonomy in July 2006. USAID will do this in part through technical assistance, civic education activities and the training of civil-society organizations, Franco said.

USAID also is working, Franco said, with civil-society groups in Ecuador to promote democracy, to advance political reforms and to provide election support for the 2006 presidential and congressional elections.

As Nicaragua prepares for November 2006 presidential elections, Franco said, there is a lack of public confidence in the nation's Supreme Electoral Council -- and questions remain about electoral fairness, as a high percentage of Nicaraguans believe electoral authorities will commit fraud in the upcoming election. He said USAID is working to address these concerns by focusing on election monitoring as a key function for effectively promoting democratic elections. Among other efforts in Nicaragua, USAID is also working on electoral law reform, voter registration and voter-list updates, he added.

In Haiti, an improved security situation has allowed for the scheduling of a first round of presidential and congressional elections for November 20, with local elections set for December 11 and run-offs planned for January 3, 2006. USAID will play an active role in supporting these elections and is spending more than $30 million for electoral administration, registration, observation and monitoring, and assistance to political parties and civil society groups preparing for the elections, Franco said.

As for Venezuela, Franco said the Bush administration is "greatly concerned" about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's strident anti-American posture.

"The projection of Chavez's interests and his brand of populism only serve to further undermine democracy in the region," he said.

Franco said USAID's objectives in Venezuela are to enhance civil society dialogue, support constitutional processes, and strengthen democratic institutions, while promoting a constitutional, peaceful and democratic solution to the current political crisis there.

Confronting the challenges to these and other countries in the hemisphere will require a "long-term, sustained, and collaborative effort," Franco concluded. This effort not only will include electoral improvements, but also will address crime and violence, attack impunity, and better address economic inequality, he said.

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