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How the OAS Revived the Cold War in the Americas

Statue of Isabella I the Catholic Queen in front of the seat of the Organization of American States in Washington D.C. Photograph Source: Martin Baran – CC BY-SA 3.0

The OAS has never been a neutral forum. Since its founding in 1948, the United States government has always wielded power far beyond its vote. Each member state’s contribution is based on the relative size of its national economy and the US contributed 60% ($51 million) of the $81million 2019 OAS operating budget. As a result, the U.S. has historically had disproportionate power over the organization.

Inconformity with U.S. hegemony brought the organization to the brink of obsolescence during the first decade of the millennium. Numerous efforts, spearheaded by South American member states, turned toward the formation and strengthening of alternative south-south regional blocs that did not include the United States or Canada. The past few years, elections and constitutionally dubious maneuvers brought rightwing governments to power. The alternative regional organizations wilted and the OAS has regained relevance.

When former Uruguayan foreign minister Luis Almagro took the helm of the organization in 2015 with the support of many left governments, political observers expected he would support the priorities of Latin American countries over those of Washington. But instead of learning the positive lessons of greater Latin American independence, Almagro swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. To nearly everyone’s surprise, Almagro brought the OAS into even closer alignment with U.S. government policies.

Under Almagro, the OAS has shifted from being a multilateral forum heavily influenced by the United States, to a proxy for U.S. interests. The Secretary General has consistently supported the U.S. government and corporate agenda, particularly in promoting US sanctions and attempts at regime change in Venezuela. He has used his post to close doors to dialog or a non-violent solution to the political crisis in Venezuela and even gone so far as to condone military intervention–a step explicitly prohibited in the OAS charter. This strategy has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, while sidelining the OAS as a credible mediator in Venezuela’s political crisis.

Nearly five years into Almagro’s tenure, a close examination exposes a series of actions that reflect a blatant ideological bias, rather than a commitment to building multilateralism in a regionwide forum. Many of these actions have violated the letter and the spirit of the OAS’s founding principles, including self-determination, democracy, a commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict, and the goal of unified action to benefit the populations of all 35 member-states.

The Organization of American States (OAS) approaches pivotal internal elections March 20, in which the Secretary General seeks a second 5-year term, amid mounting criticism. What’s at stake? What are the results of his leadership? And what does his record tell us about where he would take the OAS in the future?

Bias and Manipulation in Elections Observation

Electoral observation is a signatue activitiy of the OAS. The OAS Electoral Observation Missions are generally comprised of former politicians and electoral experts who present themselves as professional and impartial. However, under Almagro’s leadership,  Missions have received accusations from host countries of bias in the exercise of their mandate. This report analyzed three of the latest OAS’s electoral observation missions  that resulted in failure to facilitate peaceful and transparent elections. These Missions sparked accusations that OAS actions provoked, rather than prevented, post-electoral conflict: the Honduran presidential elections of November 2017, the Bolivian presidential elections of October 2019 and the recent Dominican Republic municipal elections of February 2020. Electoral processes overseen by the OAS in these countries resulted in massive popular protests which, in the first two cases, triggered the assassination of scores of protesters by security forces and caused massive human rights violations, and in all three cases deepened divisions and conflict within the host countries.

The Bolivian Presidential Elections 2019

The Bolivian presidential elections of October 20, 2019 provide the most extreme and tragic case of OAS partisanship in its monitoring duties. The actions of the OAS Electoral Mission there, headed by the Costa Rican Manuel González Sanz, led directly to a violent break with the democratic order, exile of the elected president and multiple killings of mostly indigenous protesters.

Just hours after the polls closed and before the vote count was finished, the OAS mission issued a press release, followed up two days later by a preliminary report, calling into question Morales’ lead of just over the 10% needed to avoid a second round of voting. The report cited a “hard to explain” pause in the rapid count and other criticisms of the process. Based on the report’s charges of irregularities and manipulation, rightwing forces that had hoped to gain power by forcing Morales into a second round, mobilized to overthrow the elected government. Joined by some social organizations and state security forces, they staged demonstrations and burning buildings. When the Armed Forces stepped in threatening a coup, Morales resigned to avoid further bloodshed. A government of ultra-rightwing political figures took power, unleashing attacks on indigenous peoples and Morales supporters.

The OAS accusations of “manipulation” in the Bolivian presidential elections fed and in many ways offered a spurious justification for the violent protests and unleashed widespread human rights violations. The president and vice president, along with other high-level elected officials of the ruling MAS party, were forced to flee when their houses were set on fire and they came under attack. By using its experts to question official elections results, the OAS report contributed to mob violence and the fall of the elected government, and massacres of indigenous peoples under the rightwing regime that came to power. When national and international voices protested the Bolivian coup d’état, Almagro retorted: “Yes, there was a coup in Bolivia on October 20, when Evo Morales committed electoral fraud” –an unsubstantiated assertion that did not express a consensus within the organization nor even reflect the language of the Mission’s report.

An analysis of the OAS reports by the Center for Economic and Policy Research showed that the mission provided no proof of fraud, and that the timing and accusations of the report played a critical political role in the subsequent chain of events. On February 27, experts at MIT deduced in a separate analysis of the data that “there is no statistical evidence of fraud in the results of the Bolivian presidential elections”, debunking the report by the Organization of American States (OAS) that triggered the rightwing coup.

The study by the analysts at the MIT Election Data and Science Lab concluded:

“The OAS’s claim that the stopping of the TREP [Transmission of Preliminary Electoral Results] during the Bolivian election produced an oddity in the voting trend is contradicted by the data. While there was a break in the reporting of votes, the substance of those later-reporting votes could be determined prior to the break. Therefore, we cannot find results that would lead us to the same conclusion as the OAS. We find it is very likely that Morales won the required 10 percentage point margin to win in the first round of the election on October 20, 2019.”

Their findings caused an international uproar. The OAS mission’s report alleging “intentional manipulation” to favor Morales’ re-election had become the go-to interpretation of events among press and many foreign governments. Scores of pro-Morales protesters were killed in the mayhem that ensued after the OAS Mission called into question the legitimacy of the electoral process and ignited the sequence of events that led to the coup. To date, an interim government headed by a minor member of parliament, Jeanine Añez, remains in power.

Following publication of the expert analysis, the OAS wrote a letter to the Washington Post, complaining that the study “is not honest, fact-based, or exhaustive.” However, the organization has not presented a full scientific rebuttal or specific reasons for its assertion. In view of the doubts and the dire impact, the Mexican government has demanded an explanation from the OAS. As of this writing, neither the OAS leadership nor the mission have responded to the request.

There are also troubling reports that the OAS followed the political dictates of the U.S. government in precipitating the Bolivian coup. The Los Angeles Times reported:

“Carlos Trujillo, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, had steered the group’s election-monitoring team to report widespread fraud and pushed the Trump administration to support the ouster of Morales. (The State Department denied Trujillo exercised undue influence on the report and said it respects the autonomy of the OAS. Trujillo, through a spokesman, declined a request for an interview.)”

The OAS’s lack of transparency regarding the mission has compounded suspicions. Unlike other election observations, all of which should be included in the OAS public database, the 2019 Bolivia mission does not appear at all. The OAS press office has not responded to numerous queries regarding the omission of the data on the Bolivian mission, including the names of the members and other pertinent information that could allow investigators to further probe the role the OAS Electoral Observation Mission played in the Bolivian political crisis.

The Honduran Presidential Elections 2017

 The November 2017 presidential elections in Honduras provide another example of the OAS’s political agenda. Incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez, known by his initials JOH, ran despite a ban on re-election, which was suspended by a questionable court ruling that declared the constitution unconstitutional. On election night, members of the Honduran electoral tribunal announced that the opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla had established an “irreversible” lead over Hernandez. Then the Electoral Tribunal shut down the vote count and later returned to announce the incumbent’s unlikely victory, amid mass disbelief. The OAS mission initially questioned the re-election of President Hernandez, and proclaimed that the elections were too dirty to call. Sec. Gen. Almagro himself called for new elections. The Trump administration immediately endorsed the Tribunal’s position and congratulated JOH on his supposed victory, while pressuring allies to do the same. Following the U.S. lead, Almagro eventually backed down from his insistence on new elections and accepted the JOH government.

The Honduran government has brutally repressed natiowide protests following the election, leaving more than 30 opposition demonstrators dead. While the direct blame lies with the Honduran government, the OAS’s inability to assure or restore clean elections and its compliance with U.S. policy causing it to reverse its original position, contributed to the breakdown of rule of law in the country. Today the political crisis continues to claim lives and forces thousands of Hondurans to emigrate every month.

The Caribbean: Dominican Republic Local Elections 2020, Dominica Prime Minister 2019

OAS actions in the Dominican Republic’s botched local elections on February 16 raise doubts regarding both its fairness and its capabilitty, and reinforce arguments that the missions apply political criteria when responding to electoral processes in member nations. Prior to the elections, the OAS pressured the island government to switch from paper ballots to an automated voting system. On voting day, that system went haywire. When Dominicans tried to vote, the names of certain candidates did not appear on the screens and other serious problems with the electronic system occurred in nearly half the precincts.

The national Elections Board suspended the elections just hours after the polls opened and re-scheduled them for March 15. Although local elections may seem minor, they are the forerunner to presidential elections May 17 and the results affect the campaigns. Dominicans are marching to demand the resignation of the Elections Board and call for fair elections, amid claims of fraud and sabotage.

The OAS Electoral Observation Mission says it is studying the failure, but to date has not been able to identify the technical problem, which it was its job to avoid, or explain why it didn’t catch it earlier. Completely contrary to its actions in Bolivia, after the Dominican elections fiasco, the OAS Mission did not immediately release a destabilizing report alleging manipulation. Faced with a far more major breakdown in the system, the OAS mission and its Secretary General did not point fingers, instead stating prudently “to date there is no evidence to indicate a willful misuse of the electronic instruments designed for automated voting”. The OAS seconded the Elections Board’s decision to reschedule elections and scrap the U.S.-based automated system, which cost the island a reported $80 million dollars between equipment and the aborted elections, and announced it will stay on for the March elections.

Despite the obvious discrepancy between the two cases, the OAS’s press release, used the opportunity to defend its Bolivia mission, promising to apply “the same standards of  technical quality and professional rigor as the process that was recently carried out in Bolivia”—leading some Dominicans to note on Twitterthat the comparison was not reassuring. Commentators and Dominicans on the island and in the diaspora have blamed the OAS in part for the breakdown in the system. In New York City, Dominican immigrants demonstrated in front of OAS headquarters against the “elections disaster” and called to respect the vote. U.S. Congressman Adriano Epaillat demanded that the head of the Elections Board resign. But the scores of OAS observers working on-site in the country before, during and after the events, have avoided criticizing the government or publicly analyzing the breakdown that led to the cancelation of the elections.

Protesters insist that the system failure favors the ruling Dominican Liberation Party by buying it an extra month. The ruling party’s presidential candidate trails in polls for the May elections. Current President Danilo Medina has a close relationship to the U.S. government. He was among the five Caribbean leaders who attended Trump’s Mar-a-Lago meeting March 21, 2019 to consolidate support for Trump policies to remove Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro from office and support Almagro’s re-election bid, apparently in return for promises of investment.

In addition to being key for U.S. policies in the region, recent investigative reporting indicates that Donald Trump may have more than a geopolitical interest in Dominican politics. A December 2018 undercover report by Global Witness, an anti-corruption watchdog, revealed that the Trump Organization is making plans for a new multi-million dollar development on the island that appears to have benefited from several Dominican government decisions on tax and zoning following recent visits by Eric Trump. The group called for Congressional investigation into a possible conflict of interest, which could cast further suspicion on the electoral debacle and U.S. and OAS actions.

Almagro also has a personal interest in the results of elections in the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), holds 14 of the 35 votes in the OAS. The island nation of Dominica recently denounced Almagro’s interference in its Dec 6th elections. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who has publicly rejected “interference in the internal affairs of any country” including Venezuela, won re-election handily, but just days before the voting, Almagro tweeted support for opposition demands as demonstrations by anti-Skerrit forces grew violent. Dominica’s foreign minister, Francine Baron, said in the OAS,  “We are concerned by public pronouncements that have been made by the Secretary General, which display bias, disregard for the governments of member states and call into question his role and the organization’s role as an honest broker”. Prime Minister Skerrit harshly criticized the regional body:

“The OAS mantra about free and fair elections has become a formal justification for undercutting democracy and toppling non-conforming governments to make way for US-backed political parties.”

Although its nations are divided, the leadership of the regional group, the Caribbean Community or CARICOM[*], has condemned Almagro’s active support of U.S. attempts to oust Maduro. On January 31, 2019, following Almagro’s public recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim president, the group sent a letter, stating “you did not speak on behalf of all the member states of the OAS” and demanding that he clarify the position as an individual statement. The heads of state referred to the Secretary General’s statement as a “clear de­par­ture from nor­mal prac­tice and cause for great concern.” CARICOM nations have also broken with U.S.-Almagro dictums on other issues, presenting a successful resolution to reject violence and support indigenous rights in Bolivia following massacres carried out by security forces under the coup government of Jeanine Añez, and publicly opposing Almagro’s re-election bid.

The Caribbean rebellion has provoked an active response from the Trump administration in defense of Almagro’s candidacy and control in the OAS. In January 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the region to meet with a handpicked group of leaders to discuss cooperation and nail down support for U.S. Venezuelan policy and Almagro’s re-election bid. CARICOM chair and Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, denounced that Pompeo’s selective power broker role sought to drive a wedge between the Caribbean nations and rejected the meeting. Her position was seconded forcefully by Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, who protested U.S. efforts to exclude nations that didn’t agree with Trump and Almagro’s views.

Speaking in Mexico in August 2019, the OAS Secretary General stated that if the public does not trust election results, it severely affects the quality of a democracy. However, his partisan role and the biased and dishonest actions of OAS electoral observation missions have severely undermined democracy in the region and disrupted key elections. The region faces major challenges in the near future: 2020 presidential elections in Bolivia and the Dominican Republic, the Chilean referendum and 2021 presidential elections in Nicaragua, Peru and Ecuador. These elections could either resolve or enflame political crises.

Impartial, expert election observation can instill trust in the electoral process, expose corrupt and anti-democratic practices and head off post-electoral conflicts. The region urgently needs an organization that is willing and able to play this role professionally and not act in favor of hidden interests and powers and a personal ideological agenda.

Human Rights for Some, A Blind Eye for Others

Almagro’s open bias has not only eroded the Organization’s role as an elections arbiter–politicized double standards have also been applied to human rights. Although the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights is a relatively autonomous part of the OAS, authorized to organize delegations by invitation from member states, the OAS leadership plays a huge role in priorities and funding. The Secretary General’s statements on human rights follow the pattern of bias in deciding which governments are targeted and pressured to reform, what measures are taken, and which leaders are supported despite human rights violations. Notably, while alleged human rights violations against Venezuelans receive almost daily attention, rightwing governments allied to the United States have committed grave human rights violations with little to no follow-up from the OAS. These include key allies of the Trump administration and Almagro: Colombia, which sponsored his candidacy, Chile, Honduras and Haiti. These four countries have been most prominent in the news lately due to near-constant cycles of protest and violent repression, but the OAS General Secretariat’s bifurcated strategy of highlighting human rights violations to isolate ideological enemies, and ignoring them when committed by friends also exists with other governments.

Chile: The Chilean government of Sebastian Piñera responded to mass demonstrations against a hike in the subway fare and more generally privatization, the cost of living and inequality by cracking down on protesters. According to the latest report by the National Human Rights Institute, since protests began Oct. 18, 445 protesters or bystanders have been shot in the eye with 34 suffering permanent loss of vison or complete loss of an eye, 195 complaints of sexual violence have been filed, and 951 for torture at the hands of state agents, health services report 3,765 wounded, with 2,122 hospitalized after being struck by government rubber bullets or other projectiles. These are only the cases that experts and public agencies have been able to document. Up to February, 31 Chileans have been killed, mostly young people.

Many of these figures are included in the preliminary report of the OAS’s Interamerican Commission on Human Rights. However, when Almagro visited Chile in January 2020–the same month as the IACHR report came out–he congratulated Piñera for his government’s response to the protests, saying, “in the framework of the rule of law, preservation of democracy, [your government] has efficiently defended the public order, at the same time taking special measures to guarantee human rights”. He added, “The circumstances that had to be confronted were confronted in the best way possible.”

His statements directly contradicted the findings of the OAS human rights commission, which reported: “The IACHR expresses its extreme concern and condemns the high number of human rights violations reported in the context of the social protest, and calls on the authorities of Chile to investigate with due diligence the reports of violations of human rights and identify and sanction those responsible and inform the citizenry of the results.” It cited excessive use of force by government security forces, criminalization of protesters, and use of violence against groups including women, LGBTQ, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, migrants and youth.

National organizations have criticized Piñera for his attempt to undermine the legitimacy of protesters’ demands by claiming that they are instigated by “foreign interference”,  particularly “Cubans and Venezuelans”. Almagro and Trump have made the same claim on several occasions and along the same ideological lines, while discounting the grassroots nature of the protests and the rights of the victims. As the Chilean government was attacking Chilean youth in the streets, the first pronouncement of the General Secretariat, issued October 27, 2019, reads like a Cold War credo:

“The Bolivarian winds of Simón Bolivar brought freedom and independence to our peoples; the breezes of the Bolivarian regime driven by Madurismo and the Cuban regime bring violence, looting, destruction and a political purpose of directly attacking the democratic system and trying to force interruptions in constitutional mandates. The attempts that we have seen documented in Ecuador and Colombia, we see the same pattern repeated in Chile today. The polarization, hatred, violence, bad practices, policies of systematic violation of human rights and crimes against humanity with which the dictatorships infused our political systems must be eradicated and isolated, wherever they come from. It is therefore essential to shut off the sources of violence that have their origin in external and internal efforts of institutional destabilization.”

Chilean government official have admitted they have no evidence of foreign instigation of the protests that have mobilized crowds of more than 1.5 million in Santiago, and hundreds of comments in the media and social networks have criticized Piñera for unfounded accusations. Although the IACHR continues to monitor human rights abuses in Chile, Almagro and   Trump continue to denounce foreign influence and the Secretary General has bolstered the side of the Piñera administration while ignoring the mounting number of victims.

Colombia: Another cohort among states that support the Almagro-Trump agenda in the OAS, the government of Ivan Duque, has also come under intense international scrutiny for violations of human rights, including the assassination of more than 500 grassroots leaders since the peace agreement was signed in 2016, according to the national Ombudsman’s Office.  The OAS has largely looked the other way.

Amid the criticisms of his human rights record, Duque sent out a letter on June 27, 2019 calling for support for Almagro, stating “my government is convinced that the re-election of Almagro is indispensable to continue to advance in the regional agenda of democracy and human rights”. The letter warned that “any alternative would derail the agenda of principles”, even before other candidacies had been announced. Then-president of Uruguay, Tabaré Vázquez, responded to the letter, stating that he had important differences in his evaluation of Almagro’s actions, and that OAS member states should have a chance to propose other candidates.

Just days before Duque sent out the letter requesting support for Almagro’s re-election, Almagro issued an official OAS declaration stating that Duque’s government “has done everything to maintain the peace, to deepen peace with justice and to eradicate plantations and fight drug trafficking.” The praise for Duque sparked outrage among many Colombians. Members of the organization “Defendamos la Paz-Let’s Defend the Peace” who participated in the peace process wrote a letter dated June 26, 2019 on the eve of the OAS’s 49th Assembly, declaring that Almagro’s declaration,

“not only ignores and contradicts the on-the-ground reality of what is happening in the country, but also does not concur with the declarations and reports that offices and agencies of the OAS such as the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights and the Mission of Support for the Peace process in Colombia have issued on the implementation of the final Accord to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace.”

Indeed, the January 2019 report from the IACHR flags the “alarming issue of murders of social leaders and human rights defenders”, stating that the situation has gotten worse under the Duque government since the accord. The FARC party has registered the murder of more than182 former FARC combatants. The party announced Jan. 29 that it will present the case before both the IACHR and the UN. Indepaz, an independent think tank, documents that 738 civilian activists have been murdered between Jan. 1, 2016 and July 20, 2019. The IACHR report concludes with the need for protective measures and urges the Colombian government to intensify efforts to implement the peace agreement, which the Duque government has been widely accused of undermining.

Haiti: Two other countries seem to be involved in a trade of support for the US-Almagro agenda and a pass on serious human rights violations—Honduras and Haiti. Haiti has been unable to carry out elections to restore democracy, courts are closed and the population has mobilized to confront the increasingly despotic actions of President Jovenel Moise. A IACHR report from January 2020 calls for political dialogue and the strengthening of institutions and balance of powers.

After police protests brought another wave of turmoil, the OAS Secretary General published a tweet condemning the violence, but at the same time endorsing Moise: “..violence is unacceptable in any form, but especially it is unacceptable with the intention of a violent change in the established democratic regime”. Meanwhile, the crisis under Moise is at a breaking point. The UN Integrated Office on Haiti reported this month that 4.6 million Haitians require immediate humanitarian assistance. The UN published this statement from the non-profit Fondasyon Je Klere on the lack of rule of law and government violence: “We have witnessed odious killings, decapitations, rapes, robberies, embezzlement and the diversion of supplies, abductions and kidnappings… We have death squadrons, and that’s a form of state terrorism.”

The OAS Secretary General has put little pressure on the Haitian regime to respond to popular demands in, again, what appears to be an exchange of favors. Ronald Sanders, the ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the OAS, noted Almagro’s “deafening silence” on the crisis in Haiti, writing in an op-ed March 2:

“Disappointingly, the OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, who has needed no urging to condemn governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua for violations of human, civil and political rights, has not seen it fit to bring the troubling situation in Haiti to the attention of the Permanent Council of the OAS.”

Haiti illustrates the OAS politics of division in the Caribbean. Following the Almagro-Trump strategy, Moise broke with a history of Haitian relations with Venezuela and with most of the CARICOM group by joining the rightwing Lima Group that Almagro helped organize to pressure for the removal of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro from office. The Haitian regime recognized Guaidó, sparking protests in Haiti, while other Caribbean countries have insisted on non-intervention in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Haiti’s president was one of the five Caribbean leaders who support Almagro’s re-election and met with President Trump in Mar-a-Lago on Mar. 21 of last year.

The Haitian ruler has publicly sided with the U.S. and the OAS Secretary General on the divisive issues of Venezuela and Almagro. Just as Moise entered a second year as a “caretaker government”, governing without a democratic mandate, his foreign minister Bocchit Edmond published an op-ed expressing his government’s support for Almagro´s re-election and calling for “unity” in CARICOM. As the Haitian crisis deepens, it remains to be seen how firmly the OAS Secretary General will defend democracy and human rights there, against the interests of one of his most proactive supporters.

Honduras: The Honduran administration of Juan Orlando Hernandez has accumulated a number of reports of human rights violations and accusations of corruption since taking office, and especially since the controversial 2017 elections. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented the murder of 22 people during protests following the elections, with the Committee of Families of Forced Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) documenting 30 in the single month between Nov. 30 and Dec 31 of 2017.

The latest report of the UN Human Rights Council notes that there has been little to no progress in prosecuting the security forces responsible for the crimes. It also documents continued violations in every area of review. JOH and his party have passed a series of “impunity pacts” that limit investigation and prosecution of government officials in the midst of numerous revelations of corruption and misuse of power. The president himself has been implicated in drug trafficking in a New York court.

The OAS created the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) in 2016. This year, despite a recommendation that the MACCIH’s period be extended, the organization agreed with the Honduran government to end the mission, due to the limitations on investigation and prosecution of government officials placed by the Honduran government.

The OAS General Secretariat issued a formal communiqué that stated briefly, “Unfortunately, it was not possible to reach the agreements required for the renewal of the mandate of the Mission, which is why MACCIH will end its functions on January 19, 2020”, further noting that the Honduran government would no longer provide the cooperation needed with the public prosecutor’s office.

Juan Jimenez, the former in-country spokesperson of the MACCIH, stated that the termination of the mission’s work resulted from failed negotiations between the Secretary General and the Hernandez administration that involved assuring the Honduran government’s support for Almagro’s re-election. He implied, as have other observers, that the parties agreed on a discreet exit of the anti-corruption mission in return for the JOH’s support for Almagro’s re-election. Jimenez posted on Twitter:

“Closure of MACCIH will have terrible consequences. The incapacity of the SG of the OAS in murky negotiations cannot be saved by a lukewarm communique. What was at stake here was not Honduras, but the vote for the SG of the OAS next March 20.”

The termination of the anti-corruption commission comes just after the president’s brother was found guilty of drug trafficking and other charges in the United States, in a case that named the president as an accomplice and recipient of the illicit funds. Despite extensive evidence of wrong-doing, the U.S. government has also consistently looked the other way when it comes to human rights violations in Honduras since facilitating the coup that removed the elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 and installed a rightwing regime. Since then, the Honduran government has been a staunch ally of U.S. policy in the region, as demonstrated most recently with the signing of a “Safe Third Country” agreement to block refugees from moving through Honduras toward the United States.

As with the corrosive effects of conditioning the defense of democracy on ideological beliefs, the OAS’s practice of using a political lens to pursue human rights violations causes it to lose credibility and efficacy. It also creates a dangerous situation for human rights defenders in the countries where they work, as they become more exposed, more easily criminalized and attacked, and less recognized by society for the brave and critical work they do. The rising number of assassinations of human rights defenders attests to the crisis in the region—of 300 defenders murdered worldwide in 2019, two-thirds of them were in the region of the Americas.

The Need for New Leadership

The revival of a Cold War mentality in the OAS produces grave threats deriving from its actions as detailed above, but also from its inaction. With U.S. regime change in Venezuela dominating, climate change, coordinated action against the illicit activities of transnational criminal organizations, the migration and refugee rights, and environmental catastrophes like the loss of the Amazon rainforests and the Honduran drought have practically fallen off the agenda. The OAS has put forth no comprehensive solutions for the criminal greed of corrupt governments, inequality, or violence and discrimination against women.

All this has many nations worried. News reports confirm that Argentina under Alberto Fernandez will not vote for Almagro’s re-election. Mexico’s OAS representative Luz Elena Baños announced Mexico will not support Almagro’s bid, asserting that the Secretary General exceeded his faculties by obliging the organization “to recognize or not recognize governments” and permitting “a representative of the president of the Assembly to have an ambassador” in reference to the unprecedented presence of a Guaidó supporter in the Permanent Council. Many CARICOM countries have declared their support for the candidacy of the Ecuadoran former defense minister, Maria Fernanda Espinosa.

Espinosa and the other candidate for Secretary General, the Peruvian Hugo de Zela, cited the partiality of the incumbent in their presentation speeches before the body on February 12. Espinosa, a former president of the UN General Assembly and if successful the first woman to lead the organization, promised to recover the principles of cooperation, respect the sovereignty of the States, and “maintain the technical, impartial and independent character of the electoral missions.” De Zela warned that “political polarization weakens the two essential elements of multilateralism: constructive dialogue and the search for consensus” He vowed to provide “a balanced alternative faced with polarizing perspectives that are weakening the effectiveness and relevance of the OAS as a hemispheric, multilateral forum.”

The Western Hemisphere has become a geopolitical battleground—again. For decades, the region has set global agendas and reflected geopolitical trends, although it doesn’t often capture the headlines. Thousands march in protest in Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Haiti and Ecuador, demanding deep changes in their political and economic systems. Corruption scandals have shaken Peru and Guatemala. Mexico and Argentina have popular new leftwing governments, and Brazil has a president from the ultra-right who’s proud to be called “the Trump of the South”. Meanwhile, the U.S. government, which normally calls the shots, will likely be disputed between an autocratic capitalist and a democratic socialist, marking two very different paths forward.

The possible scenario of another five years of Almagro as Secretary General presents serious difficulties, regardless of how the U.S. elections go. If Donald Trump wins re-election, regional self-determination and many of the principles of the OAS will face even greater threats from an “America First” agenda beholden to U.S. hegemony, corporate interests, and “border control”, including an explicit revival of the Monroe Doctrine. Aggressive U.S. behavior, supported by the Secretary General, could further polarize the region and the OAS. If a progressive democrat is elected, the regional organization will find itself saddled with an anachronistic Cold War leader, out of synch with new aspirations and possibilities.

Either way, Almagro’s record as leader of the OAS gives grave cause for concern. The aggressive pursuit of his personal ideological aims has led to division, conflict and even bloodshed. The Organization of American States must restore its reputation as a forum for sovereign governments to resolve the region’s most pressing issues and build toward a safe and prosperous future. To do that, it urgently needs a change in leadership.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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