Revitalization of the OAS: More Than an Act of Congress

By Carlos Portales*

OAS logoU.S. Congressional passage in late September of the “Organization of American States Revitalization and Reform Act of 2013” could either help revitalize the troubled body or contribute to its irrelevance. By directing the U.S. Secretary of State to develop and drive OAS reform options, the bill seeks to give much higher priority in the OAS and Summit of the Americas to promoting and consolidating democracy in the hemisphere – “with due respect for the principle of nonintervention” – while recognizing that “key OAS strengths” are also in strengthening peace and security, assisting and monitoring elections, and fostering economic growth. Reducing “mandates” – ongoing programs that tend to get institutionalized – is another priority. The new law also requires Secretary Kerry to devise a strategy for a new fee structure in which no member state would pay more than 50 percent of OAS’s assessed yearly fees. (The U.S. Library of Congress reports that the United States, the organization’s largest donor, contributed an estimated $67.5 million in fiscal year 2012 – nearly 43 percent of the total 2012 budget.)

The reforms parallel ideas presented by OAS Secretary General Insulza in his “Strategic Vision of the OAS” on December 2011 (updated in March 2013) striving for concentration on four main pillars: democracy and conflict resolution; human rights; development (in association with the Inter-American Development Bank); and security (mainly against drugs and organized crime). He also advocated limiting a single state contribution to 49 percent without reducing the OAS’s total budget. The Secretary General embraced similar reforms when the legislation was first introduced by then-Senator Kerry in the previous Congress.

Agreement that the OAS needs reform is nearly universal, but any strategic transformation will have to take into account important developments among the Latin American international organizations. The OAS handily accommodated the creation of subregional organizations such as SICA and CARICOM in the past.  But new bodies – such as UNASUR, CELAC and ALBA – have posed new challenges to the organization’s relevance and effectiveness. Differences among the organizations have emerged over trade, democracy (different value attributed to the independence of powers and to press freedom, as well as of handling of crises in Venezuela, Honduras, and Paraguay), security (withdrawal of five countries from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance), the strategy against drugs, and relations with the United States.  The organizations have also created new arenas for leaders to meet, at times taxing governments’ ability to keep up. From 1990 to 2012 there have been 272 Latin American regional and subregional summits, including eight Summits of the Americas.  When Secretary Kerry delivers his plan, it will be difficult for him to strike a balance between bringing the OAS more in line with Washington priorities, as laid out in the legislation, and seeking a bigger tent that addresses some of the concerns that gave rise to the plethora of competing organizations.

*Carlos Portales is the Director of the Program on International Organizations, Law and Diplomacy at WCL, American University. He was Ambassador of Chile to the OAS between 1997 to 2000.”

South America and the United States after Chávez

By Tom Long

Banco del Sur | Photo by: Presidencia de la N. Argentina | | CC BY

Banco del Sur | Photo by: Presidencia de la N. Argentina | | CC BY

In many depictions, South America’s relations with the United States have been structured around Hugo Chávez for much of the last decade.  So it is natural for the region to wonder where U.S. policy will head now that he is gone.  In the Bush Administration’s framework – which the Obama Administration has largely continued – Chávez and his closest allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina were an emerging anti-American axis.  Colombia and Chile were considered Washington’s last bastions of support, and Brazil under Presidents Lula and Dilma variously positioned itself as a quiet moderator or, on occasion, private fan of the estrangement between the unruly ALBA countries and the United States.  With Chávez’s passing, the narrative will change.

Although Chávez’s charisma, boundless energy, seductive regional pride, and resumption of Venezuela’s traditional oil subsidies made him larger than life, the depth and endurance of his influence was exaggerated by friends and foes alike.  Elements of his vision of a “Bolivarian” Latin America united in resisting U.S. influence have always been present and always will be, but the dynamic Chávez sought, with himself at its center, seems likely to fade fast.  Bolivia’s President Morales was the closest to being a protégé, but even he has been compelled by domestic politics to give priority to relations with Washington. Ecuador’s President Correa was never as close to Chávez and largely steered his own independent course. Chavez’s detractors had tired of using him as a foil as well.  For years no Latin American leader had found tangling with Caracas – thereby giving Chávez the attention he craved – to be worthwhile.  Since Álvaro Uribe’s departure, even Colombia, apparently taking a cue from the oil-hungry United States, has made trade a bigger priority than criticizing its erratic neighbor.  Many high-profile Venezuelan initiatives for the continent, such as the Banco del Sur, fizzled.  Despite Chávez’s role in their founding, even UNASUR and CELAC had grown away from his personal leadership.

Concerns in Washington that someone will take Chávez’s place as counterweight to U.S. influence seem at least five years out of date.  There is no candidate with both the desire and ability to assume Chávez’s mantle.  Just as the benefits of close cooperation with the United States have declined, most leaders have little to gain from overt conflict.  South American international relations have already grown considerably more complex, as countries developed their own responses to Chávez without taking orders from either Washington or Caracas.  The trend of increasing autonomy is natural and, in ways, inevitable – even though it may be irksome to some in Washington, who are skeptical of Latin Americans’ commitment to what Washington thinks should be a shared interpretation of democracy, trade and counternarcotics policy.

Cumbritis and Prospects for Latin American Regionalism

By Carlos Portales
Washington College of Law and Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

UNASUR Cumbre by  Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

UNASUR Cumbre by Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America has experienced a veritable proliferation of presidential summits (cumbres) in recent years, an indication of how the hemisphere’s complex web of regional ties is shuffling the landscape of multilateral organizations. This trend was manifested in the Nov. 16-17 Iberoamerican Summit in Cadiz, Spain, followed in quick succession by summits for UNASUR on Nov. 30 and MERCOSUR on Dec. 7. The New Year will witness two summits in Santiago, Chile, the first between the European Union and Latin American and Caribbean States, the second among Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).  While sometimes useful in isolation, the cumulative impact of these meetings may be less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the region may be suffering a bout of cumbritis that is as distortive as it is productive.

The Cadiz summit reflected Spanish determination to sustain an Ibero-American bloc amidst its own profound crisis. Spain’s investments in Ibero-America, particularly in banking and telecommunications, are keeping alive important sectors of the Spanish economy. When the VI UNASUR Summit met in Lima two weeks later, the Presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and suspended Paraguay were all absent. Still, the meeting reaffirmed UNASUR’s role in political and military matters: UNASUR was active in the crisis in Paraguay, sent its first-ever electoral mission to Venezuela, the South American Defense Council provides coordination in defense industries and natural disaster responses, and aspires to support protection of human rights.

The following week in Brasilia, MERCOSUR formally incorporated Venezuela and signed an adhesion protocol with Bolivia. However, as Tom Long wrote in “Mercosur’s future: Whither economics?” on Dec. 18, MERCOSUR’s expanding breadth masks a lack of depth. The trade bloc has not agreed on a common external tariff, and integration has stalled as Argentina and Brazil adopted unilateral protectionist measures both during and after the global financial crisis. Though its market is growing, MERCOSUR’s ability to negotiate with third parties is limited. The countries most interested in boosting trade have split off on their own under the loose Pacific Alliance (PA), whose Presidents met on the sidelines during the Cadiz summit. Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru have set high targets for the reduction of customs duties and plan on reducing visa requirements for their citizens while already having FTAs with the US and Europe.  Chile and Peru have reached similar accords with China and other main Asian countries. However, the Alliance is primarily an informal gathering of free-trade-minded presidents, and so far institutionalization is minimal.

Brazil is leading South America-centered institutions (UNASUR and MERCOSUR) when it perceives that these suit its interests; The Venezuela-led ALBA has lost steam due in part to President Chavez’s illness; the PA process remains low-key and trade centered. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States risks irrelevance. Its robust human rights system has come under attack from ALBA countries and others, while four ranking members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have lambasted its leadership publically. The OAS may not be unsalvageable, and it remains potentially useful, though that potential will only be realized if the United States endeavors to support rather than undermine its efforts.

And Summits alone will not ensure the success of any of these multilateral forums: increasingly ubiquitous conversations among presidents can be effective for defusing immediate crises and for establishing guidelines for cooperation, but their long-term impact on policy coordination will be limited if they are not matched by analogous cross-national dialogue among key government ministries. The symptoms of chronic cumbritis lie in the failure of many presidential declarations to result in concrete advances in cooperation.

Whither the OAS?


Photo by: Photo by: Jose Miguel Insulza via

The OAS General Assembly in Bolivia this week underscored, yet again,the Organization of American States’s struggle for relevance in the hemisphere.  Only Presidents Correa and host President Morales showed up.  Secretary Clinton skipped the summit, and U.S. Assistant Secretary Jacobson didn’t even stay to deliver her own speech.  The ALBA countries, led by Venezuela, attacked two of the OAS’s defining initiatives, while the other members stood by.  Alleging the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was biased in favor of the U.S. agenda, ALBA won a vote to discuss reform in the future.  Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua also announced their withdrawal from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance.  Known as the Rio Treaty, the pact has enshrined the principle of mutual defense in hemispheric relations since 1947.

ALBA’s complaints about the OAS are not new, and neither are Washington’s.  The House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted to zero out U.S. funding for the OAS in July 2011, when several Congressman called the OAS “an enemy of the U.S. and an enemy to the interests of freedom and security” and claimed it was “bent on destroying democracy in Latin America.”  The Obama Administration did not come to the organization’s defense, and, as in the past, the OAS appeared passive, apparently calculating that the storms would blow over.

The South Americans will be happy to fill the void with their counter to the OAS – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which explicitly excludes the United States and Canada.  But CELAC lacks infrastructure and funding and, so far, has mostly been a forum for speeches.  Brazil’s position will be key.  Although probably bemused by the decline in U.S. and OAS influence in the region, Brazil may nonetheless see advantage in reviving – and reforming – the OAS as a buffer for working out north-south and even south-south differences.

Click here for additional information from CLALS’s “Hemisphere in Flux” initiative, an ongoing research program on the future of Inter-American affairs, conducted in partnership with Brazil’s Institute Nacional de Estudos dos Estados Unidos (INEU) and the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Economicas y Sociales (CRIES) .