Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Challenges Face the OAS’ Next Leader?

Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Former Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro is poised to be elected secretary general of the Organization of American States today in a secret vote. Is Almagro the right person for the job? What are the biggest challenges he faces, and what are the first tasks he should tackle? To what extent is the OAS irrelevant, as its critics argue, and what should Almagro do to increase its influence?

John Maisto, member of the Advisor board, director of U.S. Education Finance Group and former U.S. ambassador to the OAS: “The new secretary general will be helped at the outset by a Summit of the Americas in Panama that helps launch a new U.S.-Cuba relationship, leaving behind a tired debate. Luis Almagro comes from a successful, admired country with a socialist government that promotes economic inclusiveness as it cherishes and thrives in representative democracy. His challenge will be to bring those values to the work of the OAS. The existing agenda will be unchanged: perennial lack of sufficient funding; a perception that the OAS is less than relevant, particularly regarding democracy and human rights in Venezuela and media freedom in Ecuador; and how to keep the OAS engaged with regard to other hemispheric entities such as Unasur that eschew the United States and Canada. Almagro would be wise to concentrate on strengthening the jewels of the inter-American system: the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and election observation. Similarly, he should strengthen the OAS’ pragmatic, horizontal cooperation on international crime, narcotics trafficking and money laundering; anti- terrorism; and combating corruption. Almagro’s biggest challenge will be to seek leadership buy-in from the member states whose foreign ministries send instructions to their permanent representatives. (We must remember that the OAS is an exclusive club of executive branches only). For without such a commitment on issues from budget to well-honed economic and social programs to scholarships dear to the Caribbeans to defending the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the new secretary general, despite best intentions, could well become as frustrated as his predecessors.”

Andrew F. Cooper, professor in the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the department of political science at the University of Waterloo in Canada: “The incipient election of Uruguay’s former foreign minister, Luis Almagro, as OAS secretary general avoids many of the procedural difficulties that have beleaguered the organization in the past. Unlike in 2005, there will be no protracted and polarizing battle between two candidates, one from the north and the other from the south of the hemisphere, widely perceived to be favored by a pro-U.S. and an anti-U.S. camp. What is worrying is the lack of focus on immediate substantive issues. When Almagro placed his program before the Permanent Council of the OAS in February, the focus was on initiatives such as the creation of ‘an Inter-American System of Prevention of Social Conflicts.’ While few can object to this goal in the longer term, the major issues in the Americas require risk-taking now, not visions of the future. How can the OAS facilitate the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, along with the re-entry of Cuba into the organization at the 2015 summit in Panama? How can the OAS defuse the escalating conflict between the Obama administration and the Maduro government amid the declaration by the United States that Venezuela poses an ‘extraordinary threat to national security’ and the special meeting of Unasur to discuss this executive action? Only by inserting itself in the middle of the core diplomatic agenda items facing the Americas can the OAS regain its status as a hub organization, attract requisite funding to cover its activities and demonstrate that it can operate in an effective problem-solving mode.”

Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in the Americas: “The OAS desperately needs energetic new leadership. It needs someone capable of undertaking a comprehensive reform of how and what the organization does. It needs a leader who awakens the talent of its staff and helps regain the organization’s leading role in promoting human rights and democracy in the Americas. Almagro has no such experience. His actions will be based more on ideology, rather than on a modernizing vision. During the last several months, Almagro held several meetings with Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, and agreed on a common agenda, the most relevant point being the need for a secretary general with a guiding role with respect to cases discussed in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This is extremely dangerous because it attacks the autonomy of the commission. For a long time, Ecuador has been trying to undermine the role of the IACHR. Almagro seems to be the candidate they need in order to accomplish that. I anticipate that during his tenure, Almagro will increase his efforts to position Unasur as a leader in human rights and democracy promotion matters, displacing the OAS and the IACHR from the scene. Judging from what’s happening in Venezuela, it appears that Unasur’s goal is not to defend citizens from human rights violations by their governments, but rather to defend governments from the complaints of their citizens.”

Pía Riggirozzi, associate professor in global politics at the University of Southampton: “If the OAS is to restore its leadership and its pivotal place as a hub organization in hemispheric diplomacy, the next secretary general, likely to be former Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, must address pressing issues. The OAS has lost an effective constituency within the United States as it struggles to satisfy critics attacking its organizational executive functions, while losing ground on signature issues and areas to new subregional bodies that are substituting many of the roles and responsibilities of the OAS. Unasur, for instance, has displaced the OAS as the preferred institution for conflict resolution in the region (Bolivia in 2008, Ecuador in 2005 and 2010, Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2012, Venezuela since 2013) and is engaged in innovative forms of ‘niche diplomacy’ within the World Health Organization and vis-à-vis international pharmaceutical corporations. Likewise, Celac is reworking the meaning and practice of Pan-Americanism. Balancing out Washington’s priorities and reducing the existing polarization in the inter-American system is a major challenge. Improving relations between the United States and Cuba gives the next secretary general leeway in this direction. Yet, diplomatic tensions between the United States and Venezuela, and the recent meeting called by Unasur in Ecuador to respond to the sanctions levied upon Venezuela by the White House, reminds us of the difficulties of finding common denominators, let alone strategic transformation of the OAS ethos. Other regional problems such as drug trafficking, forced migration, humanitarian crises and the protection of human rights continue to require hemispheric interactions. All that is a tall order for the United States, demiurge of the organization in the 1940s, which can’t afford to see the weakening of this inter-regional institution but has lukewarm support within the U.S. Congress to revitalize the OAS. But the OAS is well-equipped financially and organizationally to encourage a valuable nexus for its North and South American members in these areas, while Almagro has proven diplomatic and leadership credentials to work with individuals and countries across the political spectrum to promote such nexus.”

Nils Castro, professor, writer and Panamanian diplomat: “A good secretary general will understand in what ways the OAS should be transformed and how to do it. Luis Almagro was foreign minister in a good government and is the lone candidate in an uncontested election; that provides him with initial political backing. The question is how to recover the usefulness of an organization that was created at the beginning of the Cold War and whose field of action is greatly changed. While the OAS exhibits a poor balance of costs and benefits, Unasur already fulfills its main functions in a well-accepted way, and Celac is getting closer to achieving that, with respect to their respective subregional demands. The question is: What desirable objective can the OAS offer that is distinct and relevant? Different from other regional organizations, the participation of the United States and Canada allows the development of the OAS as a forum of dialogue and consultation between the northern and southern continents. That would even allow the Summit of the Americas to be characterized as the highest conclaves of this forum. This would allow defining what to keep or discard from the current OAS and its swollen budgets. Both Almagro and the U.S. Congress (in a law passed in 2013) have demanded pruning the organization, but they lack a major criterion to direct the scissors. Hopefully this streamlining mainly reduces U.S. financial support, to improve the global balance, reduces the OAS’ dependence on the United States and further recognizes that this issue has as many critics in Latin America as it does in the U.S. Congress.”

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