Insulza & the OAS: Moment of Truth

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Jose Miguel Insulza appears to be headed for reelection as Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Insulza is currently the only declared candidate for the March 24 vote. The Chilean diplomat is gathering support throughout the hemisphere. Curiously, the United States and Venezuela – two governments that rarely agree on anything – are among the holdouts.

Insulza’s first five-year term was marked by profound changes in the Americas and severe tests to the OAS, culminating in the recent announcement in Cancun that an alliance of all Latin American and Caribbean countries would form a parallel bloc in the coming years. Latin American and Caribbean nations had long been seeking political distance from the United States, but that process has accelerated throughout Insulza’s stewardship at the OAS.

Greater independence from the US has not, however, meant increased political cohesion among the other Latin countries. In fact, tension and distrust has been high, making effective cooperation very difficult. The harsh exchange between presidents Uribe and Chavez at Cancun was the latest example of such strain.

Insulza has confronted major challenges in the region to democracy and the rule of law. The June 28 coup in Honduras was the most notable, but growing authoritarianism in Venezuela and Nicaragua is evident. With Honduras, the OAS activated the Democratic Charter and quickly moved to a punitive stance, suspending a country from the organization for only the second time in its history (the first being Cuba in 1962, although that ban was lifted at the 2009 General Assembly meeting).

Insulza’s detractors claim that his handling of these challenges reveals double standards. Many argue that Insulza was tough on Honduras’s de facto government, yet too passive and tolerant of Chavez and Ortega’s anti-democratic practices. Indeed, Insulza has made some mistakes -- among them was underestimating the resistance in Honduras to former president Manuel Zelaya’s return to power.

But in the Honduras case, along with other situations, Insulza has behaved consistent with the political consensus of the organization he serves. In the past, Insulza has tried – without success – to secure support from other governments to give him more authority in responding to political crises. Defending democracy often collides with the equally important principle of sovereignty. Thus, his capacity to act without the consent of other governments is limited. Alberto Lleras Camargo, the first OAS Secretary General and former Colombia president, once wisely noted that the effectiveness of the OAS depends on the will of its member states.

Still, Insulza, whose political acumen and democratic credentials are well-known, deserves credit for some of his efforts. The OAS has played a positive role in reducing tensions between Colombia and Ecuador and preparing the ground for a rapprochement. The decision to lift the suspension of Cuba from the OAS yielded a positive outcome (even though the process caused some irritation in Washington).

Insulza is aware that his agenda over the next five years will be formidable. To improve its effectiveness the OAS needs thoroughgoing administrative reform. The organization’s finances remain precarious and need to be seriously addressed. Its own staff and the ambassadors from member governments should be of the highest caliber.

The OAS should have been able to respond not only to the Honduras coup but also to the crisis provoked by Zelaya prior to the coup. Opening access to OAS mechanisms from the Congress and courts – too often the victim of power-hungry presidents -- could be a strong signal that Insulza intends to lead the OAS in his next term by making substantive changes.

In the midst of the many questions raised about the OAS it is easy to forget that the organization has developed a remarkable normative framework. Its instruments are impressive and some previous accomplishments have been noteworthy.

One illustration of what only the OAS can do is last week’s report by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights on the troubling human rights situation in Venezuela. Insulza’s task will be to pursue tough reforms, so the OAS can realize its full potential.

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˙Michael Shifter