The Washington Post & the OAS Secretary General

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The Post editorial on the Organization of American States (OAS) echoes a widespread disappointment and frustration with the organization’s inability to do a better job in carrying out its mandate to advance and defend democracy in the hemisphere. There is no question that the OAS needs to be reformed, but the changes need to emerge from accurate analysis of the problems confronting both Latin America and the OAS—which the editorial fails to offer.

To start with, it is just wrong to argue that there has been “a steady erosion of free elections, free press, and free assembly in Latin America during the past five years.” In that period, aside from Cuba, every Latin American nation has held at least one presidential election along with many legislative, provincial, and municipal elections. The international community has considered every one of those presidential elections to have been conducted freely and fairly—and only one, in Mexico, was contested by the losing candidate. Electoral fraud generally has been rare, and it has routinely occurred in only a few countries.

The Post is also wrong in giving the OAS a failing grade on democracy. It may not have earned an A, but the OAS surely deserves some credit for its highly regarded work in monitoring elections and helping keep them fair. And what about appropriate acknowledgement of the accomplishments of the OAS’s special rapporteur for press freedom and for the Inter-American Commission and Court on Human Rights?

Democracy has, to be sure, deteriorated in some Latin American countries—and in a few rather disastrously. But, while highlighting Latin America’s political failures, the Post ignores the democratic progress of most of the region’s countries—Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay, for instance. In some of them, democratic politics are particularly robust.

Moreover, where democracy has eroded, it did not start five years ago when the current secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza, took office, as the editorial implies. President Hugo Chavez has been undermining Venezuelan democracy since his election in 1998. The OAS has been unable to do much to stop him before or since Insulza became secretary-general. Neither has anyone else, certainly not the United States, whose oil purchases provide Venezuela with the bulk of its income. Similarly, Nicaraguan politics have been rigged for years. It was long before Insulza’s term that elected leaders in Ecuador and Bolivia were regularly being ousted by unconstitutional means.

No one argues that Insulza’s first term as secretary-general has been a rousing success, but all the blame for the OAS’s disappointing performance cannot be pinned on him. In the past ten years, the increasingly polarized politics of Latin America have frustrated regional cooperation on democracy and virtually every other issue—and so has the foundering of U.S.-Latin American relations. The tensions and divisions in inter-American relations have been particularly damaging to the OAS because of its tradition of consensus decision-making and its deference to state sovereignty. While appropriately pointing to the OAS’s limited success in carrying out its founding mandate “to promote… representative democracy,” the Post ignores other requirements of the OAS Charter, which, according to U.S. diplomat and former acting secretary-general, Luigi Einaudi, is “a monument to non-intervention and the sovereign equality of states.”  Like the U.S. Constitution, the OAS Charter places conflicting demands on its leaders, whose challenge is not to choose been these demands, but to try to balance them.

The Post goes overboard in accusing Insulza of “unabashedly catering to the region’s left wing leaders.” First of all, it ignores the fact that in recent years most Latin American countries have been governed by leaders on the left. Worse, the Post implies that the left-wing leaders act in unison, as a cabal, with common and nefarious aims. That is surely not the case. Most of the left wing leaders—including Lula da Silva, Bachelet, Lagos, Torrijos, Fernandez (Leonel), Vazquez, and Funes—are, in fact, committed democrats. Many of them fought hard, at great personal danger, to restore democracy to their countries. If the Post wants to accuse Insulza just of consistently favoring Chavez and his supporters, it should have said so. But that too is false. Insulza has had several confrontations with Chavez, and so far Venezuela is not among the countries backing Insulza’s bid for a second term.

According to the Post, proof of Insulza’s left-leaning perfidy is that he “pushed for the lifting of Cuba's ban from the OAS, even though there has been no liberalization of the Castro dictatorship.” What the Post leaves out, however, is that every government in the hemisphere aside from the United States was pushing in the same direction, and the United States ultimately agreed to a unanimous resolution consistent with Obama administration policy toward Cuba. The Post also blames Insulza for failing to intervene when Hugo Chavez stripped opposition mayors of their power, but neglects to add that not a single OAS member supported such an intervention. Unquestionably, OAS actions in Honduras were “clumsy”—but they were mostly endorsed by every member state, including the United States.

The Post asserts that Washington should have tried to derail the re-election of Insulza, but fortunately acknowledges that is no longer possible. Thank goodness. Waging a campaign against Insulza would antagonize most Latin American governments (including the new conservative Chilean government, which supports him), further polarize regional politics, and make the OAS even less capable of leading multilateral initiatives to protect democracy. The Post also recommends that the U.S. Congress threaten to reduce U.S. support to the OAS unless it elects a secretary-general that meets Washington’s approval. That sounds like a bullying tactic that would surely fail as well, and probably bolster the influence of those Latin American countries that would like to create an alternative to the OAS, without U.S. participation.

The final recommendation—requiring that Mr. Insulza “make a presentation about the proposals and priorities for a second term”—is unimpeachable, but it is also uninformed and empty. Like any candidate for elected office, his record and plans should be subject to public scrutiny and debate. But one thing about Insulza, he is not shy. He has spoken and written more about his views on the OAS and inter-American relations than any previous secretary general, and was the first ever to testify before the U.S. Congress. Anyone reading what he has said would find it hard to argue that his platform on democracy issues is inadequate.

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