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The OAS in Trouble, Again

By Peter Hakim
Latin Pulse, November 30, 2012

Listen to Hakim's segment in Latin Pulse here.

Access this week's full Latin Pulse podcast covering Mexico and the inauguration of Enrique Peña Nieto here.

Una versión en español se encuentra aquí.

According to a bipartisan group of four influential Senators—Democrats John Kerry and Robert Menendez and Republicans Richard Lugar and Marco Rubio—the Organization of American States is “sliding into an administrative and financial paralysis” that is threatening to condemn it to “irrelevance.” This is the substance of a Nov 14 letter that the senators sent to the president of the OAS governing council.

And the four senators, all of whom hold leadership positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are right. The OAS is poorly managed, its finances are precarious, and it lacks a guiding vision. It has displayed shortcomings in conducting its core responsibilities, including the defense of democracy, human rights, and press freedom. Unfairly, however, the senators neglect to mention any OAS accomplishments or strengths—or note that none of the cited problems are new. The Inter-American Dialogue’s founder, Sol Linowitz (a former OAS ambassador himself), depicted the organization as “ignored, forgotten, and irrelevant,” and that was a generation ago. It is hard to recall a time that the OAS has been held in high regard.

The senators also omitted from their portrayal some crucial facts about the inner workings of the organization. The OAS is a creature of 34 governments—including the US government, and is able to take action only when they all substantially agree. The OAS can only be as effective as the governments want it to be. More than anything, the OAS’s troubles today mirror the deep divisions among Latin American nations and between them and the US.

Most governments are not taking the OAS seriously. Some are plainly hostile. Riled by a decision of the OAS Human Rights Commission, Brazil has kept its representative at home for the past 18 months. Argentina has not designated an ambassador to the OAS for three years. For some time, Venezuela has been a disruptive presence in the organization. Even as it finances 60 percent of the OAS budget and plays host to the organization, the US has adopted a largely reflexive role. Some consider it AWOL.

The senators could do the most for the OAS, by turning their spotlight on the US government and urging that it assume a more active presence in the organization. Some critical questions they should be raising with the White House and State Department are:
  • Is the US assigning its best diplomats to the organization? Is it encouraging other countries to do the same?
  • Is the US taking an energetic and constructive part in OAS policy initiatives? 
  • Is the US working to build support among other countries for the needed changes in strategy, finances, and administration? What more should it be doing?
The OAS, after all, is fundamental to US diplomacy in this hemisphere. The US government does not participate in other regional groupings. And the Summit of the Americas, which assembles the elected leaders of the hemisphere together every three or four years, is now also threatened by the lack of US-Latin American agreement on how to involve Cuba. The dissolution of institutional ties between Latin America and the US would not be good for either.

Peter Hakim is President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue.