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OAS Diplomats Open Their 35th Annual Meeting

From left, OAS delegates Luigi Einaudi, Jose Miguel Insulza, John Maisto
The Organization of American States opens its 35th General Assembly meeting on Sunday in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Foreign ministers from the Western Hemisphere will be examining how to strengthen democracy and reduce poverty in the region at their three-day meeting.

For the first time in more than 30 years, the OAS is holding its annual general assembly meeting in the United States. Hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the meeting brings together foreign ministers from nearly every country in the hemisphere.

President Bush will address the general assembly on Monday in an effort to generate support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which has been approved by countries in the region, but which has yet to be voted on by the U.S. Congress.

Tight security was in place as the OAS delegates began their discussions.

OAS foreign ministers say the theme of their meeting is delivering the benefits of democracy to the people of the Western Hemisphere. U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, John Maisto says the U.S. will push for strengthening the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a document approved in 2001 that calls for all people in the hemisphere to live in free societies with elected governments.

"The theme of the General Assembly is delivering the benefits of democracy. It is fair to ask what does that mean. The foreign ministers will have the opportunity, privately, publicly and informally to examine what the challenges are in our hemisphere for delivering the benefits of democracy," he said.

A major topic of discussion at the meeting is expected to be growing tensions between the United States and Venezuela. Venezuela accuses the United States of meddling in its internal affairs. U.S. officials have expressed concerns about massive purchases of Russian arms by Venezuela, and domestic polices that U.S. diplomats say hurt democracy in Venezuela.

Growing political violence in Bolivia and Haiti will also be at the top of the agenda. Increasing violence in Haiti is raising speculation that upcoming national elections scheduled for November might have to be postponed.

Newly installed OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, a former Interior Minister of Chile, says he believes the elections should be held on time. "As you know we are involved in the process of registration for the elections. We hope the elections will take place on the date on which they are set to be held. We have not discussed the possibility of a postponement. If there was a postponement, it would only be for technical reasons because registration took more time than expected. We think it is very important to have the elections soon, to have them this year," he said.

Another major topic of discussion in Ft. Lauderdale will be the OAS's chronic budget problems. Member states owe the OAS nearly $60 million in back dues. OAS officials say the organization will likely have a $7 million deficit this year, which they say hurts OAS efforts to promote democracy and fight poverty in the Western Hemisphere.