On February 21, 2020, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted “OAS Secretary General Candidate Series: Hugo de Zela,” a public event with current Peruvian Ambassador to the United States Hugo de Zela. Ambassador de Zela is one of the three candidates in the election for Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), which will take place on March 20, 2020. Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, moderated the discussion.
Ambassador de Zela began by stating that he wants to be the Secretary General to foster dialogue in the region, and that while the act of engaging in broad dialogue has been criticized as useless, having it between member countries is a necessity as well as a responsibility of the Secretary General. He added, “I want to try to convince the member countries that we do have an opportunity to change the way we do things because we need to do it before the OAS becomes more meaningless than today.” He sees the hemisphere as highly polarized, where member states only interact with like-minded countries.
As the Venezuela issue continues to be of paramount importance to the region, Shifter mentioned the candidate’s experience with the Lima Group, established in 2017 in response to the OAS’ inability to reach agreements among the divided member countries on Venezuela. Ambassador de Zela said that when the Lima Group was created, all countries shared their concern for Venezuela. They believed that the situation in Venezuela was extremely serious and was going to affect them all, that they needed to help the Venezuelans find a solution, and that it should be a “Venezuelan solution.” The Lima Group successfully came to a consensus on a few key decisions during their meeting on March 2019 in Canada. These include that the group wishes for Venezuela to become democratic through presidential elections, and that their focus is to build a coalition among those who want restoration of democracy in Venezuela. Ambassador de Zela also commented that current Secretary General Luis Almagro has been active in bringing the Venezuelan crisis to everyone’s attention, but his words have not been translated into concrete action.
Shifter turned the conversation to the current financial health of the OAS, and how the candidate would address this problem. Ambassador de Zela explained that currently, the OAS operates through two structures: the formal and the superimposed. The superimposed structure, he explained, includes the advisers to the Secretary General who are making the real decisions. He elaborated that this structure is a “shadow structure” and that in 2019, the Secretary General’s operating expenses increased by 205%, paying for the inner workings of this “shadow structure.” He proposed that, if elected, he would be completely transparent to member countries about OAS finances, and would work within the formal structure of the OAS to improve the organization’s financial health.
Lastly, Ambassador de Zela touched on the Special Working Group to Reflect on the Workings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that he previously chaired. He spoke about how Peru was aware the system was weak. Some member countries were verbally supporting the system but not abiding by the court’s recommendations or not financially contributing to it. Shifter mentioned that others saw the Working Group as a threat to the autonomy of the system. Ambassador de Zela responded that the Special Working Group strengthened the inter-American system and led to an increase in financial contribution.
The end of the event included a Q&A session during which Ambassador de Zela covered topics such as the political use of the OAS to support fair elections, Peru’s effort to protect the rights of women, how the OAS should respond to regimes who do not want to cooperate with the OAS, and how constitutionalism is at the core of the inter-American system.