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A Blow to Washington?

Chile’s Man at the OAS

by ALEX SANCHEZ

Washington, DC

The crowning of Chilean Minister of the Interior José Miguel Insulza as Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), marks the end of a long and hotly contested hemispheric campaign. With the sudden, but not entirely unexpected, withdrawal of Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Ernesto Derbez, Insulza achieved victory by default. Although the OAS race has received significant media coverage in the last several months, Insulza’s election is of little significance to hemispheric relations as he is not likely to embark on a new binge of innovative inter-American policy making. However, the Chilean’s victory is the first time in the more than a half century history of the organization that Washington’s preferetti has not been elected to the OAS’ secretary-general position.


The Reality of the Organization

The coveted OAS position has a rather tumultuous history. The previous secretary-general, former Costa Rican president Miguel Angel Rodriguez stepped down last October after only three weeks in office. In 1994, just like in 1975, the OAS race was marred with allegations of Washington using its clout to influence other nations to switch their vote in favor of former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria over then Costa Rican Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernd Niehaus. This provides a particularly lurid example of how Washington used its clout to have its preferred candidate ­ Gaviria- snatch victory at the last moment from Niehaus.

The April 8 withdrawal of the former Salvadorian President Francisco Flores before the first round of elections ensured that the U.S. would not get its way in 2005. Insulza’s election, following a five-round stalemate, where each Derbez and Insulza each received 17 votes, represents the first time in OAS history that a Washington-tapped candidate was not chosen. Luckily for the U.S., the OAS is not a powerful supranational organization like the European Union, and even if Washington looses effective control of the organization due to Insulza’s victory, the U.S. will retain plenty of other means to exercise its influence and protect its hemispheric interests.

Struggle for Votes

After the April 11 meeting, Latin America appeared to be divided between the two candidates, with the national interests of each member state being the determining factor. Those supporting Derbez in general were regarded as being comfortable with the White House’s de facto dominance of the regional body and its support for free trade. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent Latin America visit was widely regarded as a last minute effort to lobby for votes for Derbez. Nations supporting Insulza were seen as being either part of a "new left" alliance which wants to make a stand against Washington’s unbridled influence throughout the continent, or at least determined to go their own way. With 17 votes each, the question is which defection from the Derbez camp cost him the election by putting Insulza over the top by default.

Noticeably, the race for the OAS came to be less about the organization itself and more about protecting each country’s national interests. For example, Belize, a CARICOM member, was been a staunch and openly declared supporter of Derbez, probably because Mexico City has been its long-standing ally in the country’s long time border dispute with Guatemala.

The Winner

If one believes that the protracted OAS race had turned into a fiasco, it is important to highlight that, in spite of what some analysts may say, neither of the surviving candidates embodied an optimum character. Insulza faced constant fire during his time as Chile’s minister of interior. On one occasion, he threatened to have a fist-fight with Chilean Deputy Jaime Naranjo, who protested the poor efficiency of the police investigation of former Nazi and alleged child molester Paul Schaeffer, leader of the Colonia Dignidad. The analyst Héctor Kol explains how the Chilean Carabineros the national police, who served under Insulza’s command were involved in such incidents as the November 2002 shooting and the subsequent death of mapuche worker Alex Lemún en Temuco (IX region), in a protest between mapuches and timber companies. For years, the Carabineros have been associated with defending the interests of timber companies. As for Derbez, his lack of popularity was evidenced by the absence of support among his country’s own media for his candidacy. On April 26, the Mexican congress withdrew its support for Derbez’ candidacy for the OAS. While both candidates hold aspirations to attain the presidency for their respective countries, neither has been embraced by his political mentors and were instead offered the OAS seat as a "consolation prize."

What Third Candidate?

Following the April 11, stalemate there were wide rumors that a third candidate could emerge to claim victory. With a number of undecided nations such as Bolivia, Colombia, Panama and Peru, a third candidate could have proved a viable option. Several names were presented, including Peru’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Manuel Rodriguez Cuadros, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Pettigrew and even Brazil’s former President Henrique Cardoso.

However, none of the candidates, rumored or official, personified the necessary qualities to lead a hemispheric organization. The current president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Enrique Iglesias, would have been a perfect fit to lead the OAS into a higher level of performance through a vigorous reform process. Other desired candidates would have been Chile’s judge Juan Guzmán, who almost single handedly began the judicial process against former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Suriname’s Albert Randim, a veteran and highly regarded ambassador, is currently running for the post of assistant secretary-general but the Ronald Venetiaan government in Paramaribo should have seriously considered promoting him for the OAS’ top post in an act of recognition of the organization’s smaller members.


Different Visions for the Future

Daniel P. Erikson published an editorial in Chile’s daily La Tercera which began with the very catchy title "OEA: El Momento de la Verdad" (OAS: The Moment of Truth). In his article, Erikson describes the different treaties signed by OAS member states, like the 1991 Santiago Compromise and the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter in an effort to boast the importance of the organization, explaining how "the OAS has tried to establish an equilibrium between the U.S.’ approach to democracy and the principle of non-intervention favored by most of Latin America." What Erikson fails to adequately factor in is that a treaty or an agreement is only valid if the signing governments respect it. The 1991 Santiago Commitment (which declares that each country will follow its own constitutional procedures but no extra-constitutional changes will be recognized) was followed by the self-coup in April of 1992 by Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, who dissolved congress and secured a dictatorship that lasted for a decade. The 2001 charter was followed by a 48-hour coup against President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti where there are many indications that third parties were involved in the turmoil.

Erikson explains that the next secretary-general will have to establish contacts in the State Department and the U.S. Congress, clearly alluding to the fact that the U.S. funds more than half of the OAS’ budget ($84 million for 2005). In an April 7 article, "Daunting Challenges Await New OAS Chief," Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank based in Washington D.C.) asserts how "[r] egardless of who wins, the Bush administration should urge the new secretary-general to stick to the core principles-established at the Organization’s inception in 1948-of promoting democracy, defending human rights, and helping to establish markets based on free choice with minimal government interference." Both Erikson and Johnson stress the need for greater ties between the OAS and the U.S. However, the fact is that these ties have existed for the past six decades in the form of the OAS being Washington’s surrogate. Both researchers should understand that trying to achieve a balance in the OAS between the U.S. and Latin American interests is next to impossible: they can’t have their cake and eat it, too.

In the OAS-turned-hemispheric chess game, many questions are being raised about the future of this organization. With Insulza’s coronation, can we expect to see a bigger contribution from Santiago to the organization’s budget? Will Washington have an interest in continuing to contribute for most of the organization’s budget since their candidate was not elected? Erikson and Johnson mention the many issues currently on the region’s agenda in which the OAS should be involved (i.e. the ongoing crisis in Ecuador), but where its writ is not being felt. Moreover, it is necessary to think of the long term. The organization is in dire need of reform, including the necessity of establishing a security capacity as well as sorting through the bureaucracy of the different committees into which the agency is now divided. There are plenty of unresolved issues, including the fate of the Inter-American Defense Board (IADB). Ideally, Insulza will be able to address some of these issues and finding a way to increase the OAS’ relevance to its members. This does not simply mean straying from Washington’s sphere of influence, but also dealing with the governments of the rest of the Americas who are reluctant to give up any portion of their sovereignty in favor of a more powerful supranational organization. A likely alternative could be to focus on regional blocks to promote economic and political integration (i.e. CARICOM or MERCOSUR) and leave the OAS as a discussion forum.

It will take generations, not years, for the OAS to become a significant player in hemispheric affairs, if that is meant to be its destiny. Ever since Simón Bolivar first attempted to create a South American confederation of states, there have been attempts to promote integration and unity, which always have ended in failure, or at best, brief success. Recall that Bolivar himself eventually gave up and declared that "America cannot be governed."

ALEX SANCHEZ is a research assistant at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.