Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Should Insulza Have Another Term as OAS Secretary General?

Q: A Feb. 10 editorial in The Washington Post blasted the Organization of American States, saying it is failing in its stated objective to "consolidate and promote representative democracy." The newspaper also said Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, who is up for re-election next month, has been 'the embodiment of this dysfunction' by pressing to lift Cuba's ban from the organization and by refusing to intervene when Venezuela's Hugo Chávez stripped opponents of their power and launched criminal investigations against them. Do you agree? Should Insulza be elected to another term as OAS secretary general? Will he be challenged for re-election? A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president of the Inter-American Dialogue: "There is, no question, widespread frustration with the Organization of American States's inability to consistently protect and advance democracy in the hemisphere. But the OAS hardly deserves a failing grade on democracy. It certainly merits credit for its highly regarded work to assure the fairness of elections across Latin America—and for the notable accomplishments of its rapporteur for press freedom and for the inter-American commission and court on human rights. And blame for the OAS' faults cannot be pinned solely on its secretary general, José Miguel Insulza. He has, in fact, been the most assertive OAS head in recent memory and, as a result, has offended countries across the political spectrum, including both the United States and Venezuela—yet he is on track to be re-elected. The OAS has never been a particularly effective organization and, in the past decade, Latin America's polarized politics and U.S.-Latin America tensions have hobbled regional cooperation on virtually every issue. With its consensus decision-making and deference to state sovereignty, the OAS—like most other multilateral institutions—is hamstrung when its members are politically and ideologically divided. Ironically, some of the harshest criticism against Insulza is for decisions—regarding Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela—that he took with the near unanimous support of all member states, including the United States. The OAS and its leadership make an easy target for those are impatient with the slow and erratic workings of multilateralism generally." A: Diego Arria, member of the Advisor board and director of the Columbus Group in New York: "The Washington Post editorial was factual but too kind to Insulza. From the outset, he was never committed to performing his role except when it served his personal political ends. He used his high-profile position to promote his presidential candidacy in Chile catering to the leftist forces in his country whose support he would need. This explains his kowtowing to Castro, Chavez and Ortega at the expense of the freedom and democracy in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. The OAS badly needs an independent honorable secretary general after having one forced to resign and the incumbent, who has devoted his full term to the pursuit of a personal agenda and as a 'sleeper' for the radical forces in the region. For the common good, including Chile's, I hope he is not re-elected. His attempt to help former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to violate his country's constitution, which resulted in a dangerous political crisis in Honduras, should be enough to disqualify him." A: Luiz Felipe Lampreia, former foreign minister of Brazil: "The second election of José Miguel Insulza as secretary general of the OAS should be easier than the first one, despite the campaign that is now being waged against him. I say this for three reasons: 1) Member states know full well that Insulza has been an effective and respected leader of the organization; 2) No one else would enjoy an equivalent margin of support in the election among the many open or undeclared rivals; 3) He is one of the ablest diplomats to come out of Latin America in decades as I can attest to having been his colleague in most of my six years' tenure as foreign minister of Brazil. Considering such reasons, the criticism that appears regularly in the press will certainly not prevail. It must come from people who believe that the OAS should be run as if we were still in the Cold War and its methods could still be employed. In the difficult task of making the OAS politically functional in the changing times Latin America is going through, Insulza has been trying to steer a middle course that is entirely committed to the democratic principles of the organization but pragmatic enough not to be overbearing in sensitive international situations. The role of the OAS as such has been increasingly questioned and there is some ground for that, since it was created more than 60 years ago on the basis of concepts that date from the 19th century and certainly need to be carefully reviewed. José Miguel Insulza realizes this and is the best person to steer the difficult course." A: Carl Meacham, senior professional staff for U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "The Inter-American Democratic Charter created a variety of tools for the OAS to defend and promote democracy. Yet, the current secretary general has proven reluctant regarding the use of these tools to deal with the most prevalent threat to democracy in the region today—the gradual erosion of democratic institutions by elected officials. Although he remains accountable to member states, the secretary general may convoke OAS meetings on critical topics, use his 'bully pulpit' and access to the region's leaders, and offer his good offices to resolve crises. According to Assistant Secretary of State Valenzuela, 'as the elected leader and spokesman for the OAS, [the secretary general] does have certain autonomy and ability to shape the agenda.' The OAS also faces chronic financing problems, exacerbated by a 2010 budget that effectively depleted the organization's reserve funds and created an unsustainable budget shortfall for 2011. Making matters worse for the OAS is this week's meeting of leaders from more than 30 Latin American and Caribbean nations in Mexico to launch a group that could serve as an alternative to the OAS. In light of the secretary general's March 3 election presentation to the member states, I would encourage the U.S. Mission to the OAS to ask the secretary general to respond to questions regarding how, in a second term, he intends to close the OAS' financial shortfall, and to make a public commitment to specific action steps that will address challenges to democracy and human rights specifically in Venezuela, but also around the region. Satisfactory answers to these questions are especially important in an environment where the OAS risks losing relevance." A: John F. Maisto, member of the Advisor board and former U.S. ambassador to the OAS: "The successful OAS secretary general candidate will be a respected, experienced hemispheric figure who has lined up at least 18 votes of the 35 members. Also important are the track record of the candidate and the credibility of the candidate's five-year platform. Insulza, with apparently no competition, fulfils the former; he has campaigned effectively and seems to have the votes. The debate about the latter provides Insulza the opportunity to speak frankly about his performance and his controversial positions, and perhaps to admit some mistakes. He could also point out that he proposed reforms that the member countries lacked the political will even to debate. These include allowing other branches of government besides the executive access to the Permanent Council to head off political crisis and impasse. Honduras comes to mind. Also included were allowing civil society organizations hearings at the OAS and creating a more substantive role for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission beyond archived reports. The next secretary general can lead in creating a more relevant OAS that helps governments address democracy issues credibly, getting beyond hollow sovereignty and non-intervention arguments. This would require using the Inter-American Democratic Charter fully and creatively. Is Insulza up to it? Only if he can marshal the political will of member states to accept change. That's a tall order, but the only way to go if he is to become a truly reformist secretary general, and the OAS a relevant, financially strong multilateral organization."

Suggested Content

Adios, Amigos

As Hillary Clinton travels through Latin America this week, the U.S. secretary of state will find it profoundly transformed from the relatively serene region she encountered as first lady in the 1990s.

˙Michael Shifter

Insulza & the OAS: Moment of Truth

Insulza appears to be headed for reelection as Secretary General of the OAS. The Chilean diplomat is gathering support throughout the hemisphere. The US and Venezuela are among the holdouts.

˙Michael Shifter