OAS Secretay General Jose Miguel Insulza, left, thanks U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for her remarks during the inaugural session of the OAS general assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Sunday June 5, 2005
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened the 35th General Assembly meeting of the Organization of American States Sunday in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Secretary Rice called on member states to do more to protect democracy in the region, and strengthen civil society.

Condoleezza Rice opened the first OAS General Assembly to be held in the United States in more than 30 years by telling delegates that democracy needs to be strengthened in the Western Hemisphere, and governments need to be held accountable to their people.

Secretary Rice called for the General Assembly to approve the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a document endorsed in 2001 that calls for all people in the hemisphere to live in free societies with elected governments.

"The Democratic Charter must become the core of a principled effective multilateralism for the Americas," Ms. Rice says. "Together we must insist that leaders who are elected democratically have a responsibility to govern democratically."

The Democratic Charter has been endorsed by some nations in the Western Hemisphere such as Chile, Panama and Peru, but others including Argentina Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela have expressed reservations, calling the idea an infringement on their sovereignty.

Speaking Sunday in Caracas Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez called the proposal an attempt to meddle in his country's internal affairs.

In his remarks to the General Assembly newly installed OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza expressed support for the U.S. proposal warning of a "persistent danger of democratic backsliding in the region."

In her remarks Secretary Rice also said the OAS should do more to strengthen civil society groups in the region, which, she says, can play a pivotal role in countries in political crisis.

"In places like Bolivia, Ecuador and Haiti the institutions of democracy have perhaps brittle roots," Ms. Rice says. "To help democracies in our hemisphere in places like these and in others to find a path to lasting success, this organization must also embrace the legitimate contributions of civil society."

Civil Society groups advocating greater environment protection, indigenous rights and debt relief are being given extensive access to OAS delegates at this year's General Assembly meeting which is being held under extremely tight security.

In her remarks Secretary Rice also called for democracy to return to Cuba, noting that the only vacant chair among the foreign ministers assembled at the meeting belonged to Cuba.

There were scattered protests Sunday outside the convention center where the OAS delegates are meeting. Supporters of ex-Haitian President, Jean Bertrand Aristide held a demonstration protesting UN troops in Haiti. They were joined by anti-globalization groups, but police reported no incidents of violence.