Weekly Standard Online
October 22, 2009
by Jaime Daremblum
Several decades after its founding as the Western Hemisphere's premier democratic forum, the Organization of American States (OAS) is in danger of becoming irrelevant. As a former Latin America diplomat, I say this with great regret. The OAS should be a powerful vehicle for defending democracy and promoting regional cooperation. Yet, it has been weakened and corrupted by poor leadership and structural deficiencies.
The poor leadership has come from José Miguel Insulza, a Chilean socialist who has served as secretary general of the OAS since 2005. Insulza has politicized the institution and pursued ideological causes that have little (if any) connection to Latin America's most pressing challenges. Earlier this year, for example, Insulza spearheaded an aggressive movement to end Cuba's 47-year-old suspension from the OAS. I have never seen the organization so energized over a single issue. In early June, Insulza and his allies got their way, as the ban on Cuban membership was lifted (though the island was not formally readmitted).
According to its charter, one of the "essential purposes" of the OAS is "to promote and consolidate representative democracy." Yet at a time when democracy is being rolled back in several of its member countries, the OAS has been preoccupied with embracing a Communist dictatorship--a dictatorship that says it has no interest in joining the democratic club.
Under Insulza, the OAS's priorities have been skewed by ideological biases. Across Latin America, politicians have been loudly critical of the U.S. embargo against Cuba; but they have been remarkably silent about the sustained attacks on democracy in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. Indeed, while the Cuba embargo has become a cause célèbre for the Latin American left, the anti-democratic policies of Hugo Chávez and his populist cronies have been greeted with a collective shrug.
If the OAS is unwilling to stand up for democracy in its member countries, then it is no longer a serious organization. What is happening today in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador represents a sharp reversal of hard-fought democratic gains. Yet too many OAS members seem blinded by ideology. Latin American officials waged a forceful campaign to lift the OAS ban on Cuba. They have hardly lifted a finger to support besieged democrats in Caracas and Managua. Sadly, the institution's stated commitment to democracy has become a bad joke--and Insulza has done nothing to salvage it.
Besides being overly ideological, Insulza has also been ineffective. He failed to defuse the Honduran political crisis before it exploded with Manuel Zelaya's removal from office on June 28. Even a casual observer of Honduran affairs could have seen that real trouble was brewing, and that President Zelaya's irresponsible behavior was leading to a showdown. After Zelaya's exile, Insulza was utterly intransigent and failed to work constructively with the interim Honduran government to resolve the crisis. He ignored Zelaya's crimes against the Honduran constitution and insisted that the exiled Chávez acolyte immediately be restored as president. When Honduras refused to comply, it was suspended from the OAS.
As of this writing, the negotiations to solve the political crisis in Honduras remain deadlocked. In all likelihood, if the dispute is eventually settled, most of the credit will belong to the Honduran people, a heroic nation willing to make compromises in hopes of achieving a democratic and just resolution. In any event, the elections next November should provide a legitimate end to the internal conflict. Meanwhile, the OAS has been rigid and unyielding, not to mention unrealistic in its demands.
While Insulza has been a disastrous OAS chief, the institution suffers from structural deficiencies that he did not create. Each of the 34 member countries (there are currently 33 active members, given the suspension of Honduras) has equal voting weight. In other words, regional giants and economic powerhouses such as Brazil and Mexico wield the same voting power as tiny island-nations. The smaller, poorer countries often neglect broader hemispheric concerns and instead pursue their own interests, which typically involve oil and economic aid.
The OAS makes decisions by "consensus," meaning that a tyranny of the minority can paralyze its operations. A single country--no matter how small its population or absurd its arguments--can prevent the institution from executing an important decision. These days, all decisions are effectively subject to the approval of Hugo Chávez, who has used economic assistance or ideological outreach to gain major influence over the votes of at least 20 member countries, including Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, and most Caribbean nations. In addition to these problems, the OAS is plagued by a cumbersome and unaccountable bureaucracy that often stifles significant action.
It is a shame that such an important organization has sacrificed its credibility and forfeited much of its moral authority. Now more than ever, the hemisphere needs a strong multilateral institution dedicated to upholding democratic values. The growing irrelevance of the OAS is good news for Latin America's aspiring autocrats. It is bad news for everyone else.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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