May 13, 2005


Washington Doesn’t Get Its Way in the OAS

Latin America’s Coming of Age

By Laura Carlsen

The May 2 victory of Chilean Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza as secretary general of the Organization of American States ends one phase of a drama that is only beginning.

The showdown over the leadership of the OAS began when Costa Rica’s former president Miguel Angel Rodríguez resigned in October 2004 due to corruption charges in his home country. Rodríguez was elected by consensus and had served only three weeks of his five-year term when forced to leave.

Elections at the OAS are typically a foregone conclusion, with the United States picking successors year after year. When the increasingly powerful and rebellious nations of the Southern Cone united behind Mr. Insulza’s candidacy, it threw a monkey wrench into the smooth—if not very democratic—workings of the past.

The Bush administration had its own candidate in former Salvadoran president, Francisco Flores. Leader of the rightwing ARENA Party, Flores was seen by many nations as a figurehead for U.S. interests. Flores dropped out only days before the vote, having failed to garner sufficient support for a run against the Chilean candidate.

In this politically sensitive climate, the State Department behaved like a bull in a china shop. Instead of backing Insulza, it drafted Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Derbez to replace Flores. This move pitted the North, seen as the United States and Mexico, against the South, in a contest that reflected tensions that have been showing up in other multilateral forums, including the World Trade Organization and the IMF.

On April 11, the vote ended up a 17-17 tie. It was repeated, and tied four more times. The press reported angry remarks in the hallway directed at John Maisto, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, from members of the Chilean delegation. Chile had expected to win the April 11 vote until the switchover of several small Caribbean islands countries led to the impasse. Latin American press reported heavy pressure from the Mexican and U.S. governments on the islands.

The State Department then floated the idea of a third “consensus candidacy,” but Chile refused to back down. Just days before the recent vote, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with both the Chilean and Mexican candidates in Santiago, Chile; faced with the probability of losing the next round, Washington had little option but to support Insulza’s candidacy.

The sour grapes award goes to Mexico, whose candidate was apparently abandoned when Rice cut the deal with Chile. Derbez later abstained from voting in protest. This will further strain relations between Mexico and its neighbors to the south.

Insulza, meanwhile, faces serious constraints on his leadership, not least because the U.S. funds over half the OAS budget. Although we can only speculate on the details of the agreement worked out between Rice and the Chilean government, continued pressure on Cuba no doubt figured prominently. The new secretary general also stressed democracy, restated to include the obligation of democratically elected governments to govern democratically, and warned against populism. These terms echo increasing U.S. government criticism of the popularly elected Chavez government and accusations that grassroots Andean movements are a form of “radical populism.”

Nonetheless the incident also shows that the United States no longer exclusively calls the shots in Latin American politics. This is a positive development, not only for those nations seeking greater autonomy in international relations but for the U.S. as well. More effective representation of interests in the OAS will enhance the organization’s credibility, and permit it to help negotiate the resolution of political crises, such as the ongoing turmoil in Ecuador, more authoritatively.

The Organization of American States may seem almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of U.S. foreign policy. Terrorism is not a significant problem in the region and, thankfully, no real security threats to the U.S. homeland come from our hemisphere.

But it will be the stage for key decisions in U.S. international relations. The changes occurring in Latin America directly challenge the Bush doctrine of U.S. hegemony. What Rice worried would be “read somehow as a North-South split” is in reality an emerging proposal for more equal diplomatic relations with developing countries. Brazil , in particular, has led this proposal in international trade forums lately.

On Chilean television, Rice was asked if as part of the administration’s “human freedom” campaign, Washington would apologize for its support of Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s. She replied only that “it was not our finest moment.” We have had many not very fine moments in Latin America over the past century. Strengthening multilateral organizations is an important step toward overcoming that past and building a future based on mutual respect.

Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program of the International Relations Center (IRC), online at

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