By Maria Carrasquillo*
Secretary General Luis Almagro’s quest to revitalize the Organization of American States (OAS) seems premised on being an “activist” Secretary General in what could be a make-or-break gambit to assert the organization’s hemispheric leadership. Only 13 months in office, Almagro has taken an approach that is a clear departure from the low-key, consensus-building ways of former Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. In his 2015 inaugural address, Almagro laid out his plans for the rejuvenation of the OAS, including internal changes to “adapt it to the realities of the 21st century” and “insert [it] into a world different from the one in which it was developed and has grown and operated.” Almagro underscored the need for the OAS to promote transparent and inclusive elections throughout Latin America and, in regard to democratic governance, “lend a hand to countries that are going through moments of tension and conflict.”
Almagro has taken a number of positions that confirm his desire to redefine the OAS’s role in the region.
- In 2015, Almagro took the lead in developing a plan to fight corruption in Honduras, resulting in the formation of the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity (MACCIH) – a watered-down version of the successful UN-backed CICIG in Guatemala. The jury is still out on whether MACCIH will have a serious impact, but Almagro has staked his reputation on its credibility.
- He has claimed that the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff lacked sufficient justification and that accusations against her were politically driven. Almagro also called for anticorruption investigations under Operação Lava Jato to continue as essential for the rule of law.
- Prior to the Peruvian elections, Almagro warned that the disqualification of two candidates reflected unequal application of the law and raised concerns that the contests would be “semi-democratic.” Following a meeting with disqualified frontrunner Julio Gómez, Almagro called for the reinstatement of both candidates’ right to participate in the elections.
- Perhaps Almagro’s most controversial action has been his attempt to invoke the OAS Democratic Charter against the government of Venezuela, without a finding by the Permanent Council, as required under Article 20 of the Charter, that the situation there amounts to “an unconstitutional alteration of a constitutional regime.” The Permanent Council implicitly rejected his appeal by urging more dialogue between the OAS and Venezuela. Almagro then sent a strongly worded letter to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accusing him of lying and “betraying his people,” and calling for the release of political prisoners, restoration of legitimate powers to the National Assembly, and a referendum to recall Maduro in 2016. (The Permanent Council is set to discuss the situation in Venezuela again on June 21.)
Almagro has taken on some very difficult issues, and explanations for his motivations are varied but not mutually exclusive. Some observers perceive a personal embrace of OAS principles, others detect a desire to avoid the sort of U.S. criticism that plagued Insulza and constrained U.S. support and funding, and still others speculate about his future political ambitions as a reformist on the non-radical left of Latin America. The democratic principles he is defending are clearly enshrined in OAS documents, but his activism has so far not reversed adverse situations: Rousseff was impeached, the Peruvian candidates were forced to sit out the election, and Maduro has yet to soften. Being an “activist” Secretary General in the case of Venezuela entails great risks; his predecessors were criticized both for getting too directly involved in the country’s internal affairs and for remaining passive in the face of growing authoritarianism in Caracas. It seems, moreover, as though Almagro has often acted alone, and the tone of his letter to Maduro was uniquely strident. A great deal is on the line for the OAS. If Almagro’s activism works, it will enhance the organization’s leadership on a range of issues confronting the hemisphere, but it may also put the OAS in the middle of future conflicts in which failure would bring a loss of institutional credibility.
June 16, 2016
* Maria Carrasquillo is a recent graduate of the M.A. Program in American University’s School of International Service and a research assistant at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.