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

Transgender Rights: Signs of Progress in Latin America

By Emily McGranachan

Marcha de Orgullo, Buenos Aires, Argentina / Photo credit: blmurch / Foter.com / CC BY

Marcha de Orgullo, Buenos Aires, Argentina / Photo credit: blmurch / Foter.com / CC BY

Social and structural discrimination limit the economic, health, and social prospects of transgender individuals, often leading to precarious lives fraught with human rights violations.  According to Argentine psychologist Graciela Balestra, transgender people around the world have an average life expectancy of only 30 years.  In Latin America, they have the highest rate of HIV infection (35 percent) and frequently face violence and insecurity.  According to the 2012 Trans Murder Monitoring Project report, of the total reported murders of transgender people in the world between 2008 and 2011, 79 percent took place in Latin America.  International HIV/AIDS Alliance and Red Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Personas Trans (REDLACTRANS) published similarly startling statistics in a 2012 report titled “The Night is Another Country.”  While the report focused on the experiences of transgender women, it also reveals that transgender men also experience high rates of discrimination and violence throughout Latin America.  Of the transgender women interviewed in the study, about 80 percent reported experiencing violence or threats by police and other officials.  Throughout Latin America the prevalence of transphobia – defined as the fear or hatred of transgender people – has led to impunity for violence and discrimination against transgender people, and these crimes, including murder, are seldom prosecuted.  The transgender community also faces challenges of social discrimination and the lack of access to health care and jobs, marginalizing transgendered people in society.

While the current situation is stark, some societies have shown greater openness to transgender people.  Whereas Brazil and Colombia allow identity card changes only after surgery and board evaluation, Argentina in 2012 became the first country in Latin America to pass a progressive law easing the rules with regard to gender identity and identification.  Now a person in Argentina can change the name and sex on their identity card without having to go through the long and discriminatory process of sex reassignment surgery or going before a judicial review board.  In 2009, Uruguay slightly loosened its controls when it began requiring only board approval for identity card changes.  Government initiatives, like that of Argentina, have direct impacts on the lives of transgender people, who are able to access jobs and other securities, according to Balestra.  Greater inclusion in society and stronger legal protections by the government can signify or signal a change in social values within the broader society.

The Obama Administration has been a vocal supporter of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights as part of a broader human rights agenda in international diplomacy.  Among its initiatives are the Global Equality Fund to support local LGBT organizations and advocates, a greater recognition of refugee rights for LGBT people, and a general promotion of rights abroad through working with NGOs and states.  Recognizing the situation in Latin America, the State Department highlights its work trying to establish a special rapporteur for LGBT human rights within the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.  As some aspects of LGBT rights progress in the United States (the U.S. still has a high rate of violence against transgender people as well), it is expanding its understanding and definition of human rights.  While the right to security, health care, employment and dignity have long been international human rights, only recently has the discrimination and violence transgender people face become an important part of the human rights platform.  The incorporation of LGBT human rights into U.S. foreign policy, backed by a strong U.S. example of justice and security for transgender citizens, will encourage other countries to follow suit.