OAS: Almagro’s Challenges

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The OAS’s new Secretary General, Luis Almagro Lemes, appears to be steering his organization toward a coordinating role that, he hopes, places it above the fray of hemispheric tensions.  He has not chafed at Washington’s version of democracy promotion, and indeed has embraced elements of it.  He has readily admitted the “inexorable conclusion” that the OAS needs to be “revamped and modernized”; that it needs to “reinforce its legitimacy”; and that its structure and resources need to be better realigned with the four pillars of its mission—democracy, human rights, security, and integral development.  His promises of internal reform so far have not been radically different from those put forth by his beleaguered predecessor, José Miguel Insulza, or even diverged from proposals embodied in U.S. legislation passed in 2013.  They have been articulated, however, in the sort of Washington consultancy language that might help his cause in the U.S. capital, such as references to evolving “from the OAS’s traditional command and control toward an organization that operates like a matrix geared to results in which the hemispheric and national dimensions feed into and enrich each other.”  Elected in March and inaugurated in May, in June Almagro received a mandate from the OAS General Assembly to restructure the General Secretariat, reorganize old offices into new ones, and implement other aspects of his plan.

Regional reactions to Almagro’s election and reform plan have been positive if sometimes not overly enthusiastic.  At the General Assembly meeting, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Blinken spoke of a “new chapter … in the history of the OAS” and said, “We have a new secretary general, a new strategic vision statement, and renewed attention to genuine reform.”  South America’s preeminent power has been generally aloof toward the OAS, but the Brazilian Senate in mid-July approved a new OAS permanent representative, and last week Brasilia paid $3 million of its $18 million in late dues—modest relief from the slow strangulation caused by dire cash-flow issues because of non-payment by several key countries.  Almagro has also won support in Latin America through his repeated signals of a desire to work more closely with other hemispheric bodies—even CELAC, which was created in 2011 as a direct challenge to the OAS and supposed U.S. influence over it.  He pledged to “seek out areas where we can complement the work of other bodies,” citing by name CELAC, UNASUR, SICA, CARICOM, and MERCOSUR.  According to press reports, his close cooperation with UNASUR as Foreign Minister of Uruguay in 2010‑15 lends credibility to that promise.  Almagro also has won regional praise for pledging to continue efforts for bring Cuba back into the OAS as a full member—building on the success of the Summit of the Americas in April driven by the Washington-Havana rapprochement.

Outgoing Secretary General Insulza was a relatively easy act to follow because, often unfairly, his image was tattered after 10 years in the crossfire between Washington and the countries pushing to undermine U.S. influence in Latin America.  Almagro appears eager to push the re-set button, and the success of the Summit of the Americas and his pledges on democracy, reform, and hemispheric cooperation have given him a good start.  But leading the OAS is going to take more than artful rhetoric, internal restructuring, and a few reforms.  President Obama’s move on Cuba removes one major irritant from hemispheric relations, but an effective Secretary General is going to have to navigate the shoals of longstanding North-South tensions.  The “spirit of genuine and equal partnership” that Deputy Secretary Blinken spoke of wanting with the OAS will be difficult to achieve, and the supporters of CELAC, UNASUR, and other alternatives to the OAS will find it equally tough to accept the OAS as a valid venue for debate and compromise.  Almagro will also have to show that he can run the organization in a professional and modern way to overcome the perception left by his predecessor of weak management of the institution.  He has declared himself a man of practical solutions, not ideology, but pleasing everyone—trying to be a coordinator who threatens no one’s interests—may not be a workable strategy for long.  If the OAS is to fulfill its mission, moreover, the United States and others will have to give Almagro the space to do his job.

July 27, 2015

OAS: New Leadership, Old Challenges

By Aaron Bell and Fulton Armstrong

José Miguel Insulza and Luis Almagro Lemes Photo Credit: OEA - OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

José Miguel Insulza and Luis Almagro Lemes Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Uruguayan diplomat Luis Almagro, elected secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) last week, says he wants to revitalize the hemispheric organization – a herculean, if not impossible, task.  Almagro was the only candidate remaining after Guatemalan Eduardo Stein and Peruvian Diego García-Sayán withdrew from the race – the former for health concerns, and the latter due to a perceived lack of support from his government.  Almagro previously served as Foreign Minister under former president José Mujica and is a member of his Movimiento de Participación Popular, whose left-leaning sympathies led observers to wonder whether Almagro could draw sufficient backing even running unopposed.  But Almagro received formal support from several prominent nations ahead of time, including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States, and he got 33 of 34 votes (Guyana abstained) to secure his election.  Following the election, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the new Secretary General to “lead the OAS through this genuine reform process by helping to refocus the OAS on its core pillars – democracy, human rights, sustainable development, and citizen security,” all while resolving its fiscal challenges.  “We look to [him] for his leadership, but we want him to know that he does not stand alone.”  His five-year term begins in May.

In his acceptance speech, Almagro stated that he intends to rise above the role of crisis manager and facilitate “the emergence of a revitalized OAS,” but major challenges await him:

  • The political crisis in Venezuela has long challenged the OAS, and an escalation in sanctions and rhetoric from the United States has made its balancing act harder. Current Secretary General José Miguel Insulza criticized the Obama administration’s national security warnings while also calling out the Maduro government for the arrest of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma and its resistance to dialogue with the opposition.  Almagro has been critical of U.S. sanctions as well, and quietly worked behind the scenes to encourage negotiations between political opponents in Venezuela, but his public silence on abuses by the Maduro government worries his critics.
  • The Cuba issue will also put Almagro in a tight spot. Havana’s participation in the Summit of the Americas is likely to build pressures for its readmission to the OAS, and Almagro’s record shows he’ll be sympathetic.  But the process could be fraught with risks for the new Secretary General.  Outgoing Secretary General Insulza bears scars attesting to U.S. Senators’ penchant for personalizing attacks when the OAS doesn’t go their way.
  • Any reform agenda is going to get battered from both sides. The OAS mandates are broad and expensive, and members don’t agree on priorities.  As Deputy Secretary Blinken’s comments suggest, Washington wants the organization to focus on its agenda, but much of South America, particularly the ALBA countries, wants the OAS to pull away from U.S. influence.  Nor do differences lie strictly along North-South lines, as made clear by protests during last year’s general assembly against Brazil’s resolution condemning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Almagro seems to have the experience and temperament to be an excellent choice for the job, and his coming from Uruguay, whose good offices have credibility virtually everywhere, may serve the OAS well.  But the challenges will be daunting.  He faces several ongoing crises, particularly in Venezuela, and ongoing splits within the region over the OAS’s role.  One tempting option would be for Almagro to try to distance himself and the organization from Washington – a difficult task at best.  Not only is his headquarters several hundred meters from the White House and the State Department, but the United States government (and to a lesser extent Canada) provides substantially more funding for the OAS’s general fund and through special donations than any other member state.  Almagro’s actions will also be watched closely by U.S. conservatives who, stung by President Obama’s move toward diplomatic relations with Cuba, are looking for a fight over Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and even on some issues with Brazil.  Whatever Almagro does, it will be with the black cloud of the OAS’s financial difficulties over him, and the possibility that failing to successfully balance all of these issues may weaken the OAS and benefit regional organizations like CELAC and UNASUR, which are smaller and less well established, but independent of North American influence.

March 23, 2015