Almagro’s Freshman Year: Bold Actions or Unnecessary Risk?

By Maria Carrasquillo*

Luisito

Photo Credit: Juan Manuel Herrera (OAS)/Flickr/Creative Commons

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.

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

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.”

OAS Drug Report: Let’s Get Serious

The OAS Preparing their Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas | Photo credit: OEA - OAS | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-ND

The OAS Preparing their Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas | Photo credit: OEA – OAS | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-ND

The Organization of American States’ most recent report on the drug problem in the Americas – released last week in Bogotá – takes a fresh, analytical look at the issue and, by advocating discussion of new approaches, subtly signals the “war on drugs” so far has failed.  The report was mandated by hemispheric leaders last year at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, who “agreed on the need to analyze the results of the current policy in the Americas and to explore new approaches to strengthen this struggle and to become more effective.”  It takes an analytical approach toward drug-related problems in the hemisphere and includes a discussion of both the supply and demand factors of the drug trade.  (Click here to view the OAS documents.)

The report does not make bold policy recommendations.  It calls for greater attention to the public-health implications of the drug problem, but generally avoids advocating particular strategic solutions to the production, transportation and consumption of illegal narcotics, instead providing different scenarios for the evolution of the drug problem in the Americas.  It envisions the legalization of certain drugs, such as marijuana, in various countries, but makes clear that the OAS is not advocating legalization or decriminalization.  Instead, the report emphasizes the need for countries in the Western Hemisphere to work together to combat the drug problem and discuss new approaches.

The OAS’s unique status in the hemisphere – demands on its performance are high but support for its efforts  from key governments in the region is inconsistent – may not make it the best organization to take the lead on an issue as thorny as the “war on drugs.”  The increasingly clear consensus south of the Rio Grande is that the past couple decades of effort have been not been worth the cost in dollars and lost lives, and many Central Americans, in particular, believe the militarized approach has been disastrous.  Often criticized by U.S. politicians and bureaucrats, Secretary General Insulza was probably wise not to use the report to formalize the hemisphere’s rejection of Washington’s policies.  But moving the discussion to the analytical level – rather than parroting support for another Plan Colombia or Mérida Initiative – is a significant accomplishment in itself.  Rolling out the report in Bogotá, where talk of “new approaches” is also growing, probably helped strike the right balance between old and new.  In addition to platitudinous calls for regional cooperation, the OAS can demonstrate its leadership and relevance by channeling the criticism, the lessons learned, frustration with U.S. consumption, and regional governments’ prescriptions on the way ahead into a serious, constructive strategy for the hemisphere.  With this report, the OAS has indicated that it’s time to get serious about viable alternative solutions to this multi-faceted issue – and that clinging to old models and rejecting new ideas is no longer an acceptable response to calls for rethinking the “war on drugs.”

Chavismo Wins a Battle But the Tide May Have Turned

By Eric Hershberg

Inauguration of Nicolás Maduro | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Inauguration of Nicolás Maduro | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Nicolás Maduro’s inauguration last Friday marked a new stage in the contest between chavistas and the Venezuelan opposition.  Maduro’s surprisingly weak showing at the polls – winning by a meager 1.8 percent margin despite the huge (and abused) advantages of incumbency – plus tensions within his party and his own rhetorical excesses, suggest that chavismo without Chávez confronts challenging odds.  Chávez attracted more votes alive than he could in death, as his hand-picked successor could not match his patron’s appeal at the ballot box.  Looking forward, Maduro and the Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV) will be judged on the basis of their performance.  The road ahead will not be easy for Maduro, as the government  confronts growing economic and security problems, and his ineffective campaign may energize potential competitors from within Chavismo.

Henrique Capriles’s strong showing in the election bodes well for the opposition.  However, athough Maduro’s blanket reference to them as “fascists” is absurd, their apparent eagerness to use the vote recount – reluctantly agreed to by the electoral council hours before Maduro’s inauguration – to remove him from office could breathe life into his allegation that the opposition consists of  golpistas obsessed with taking power.  Overreaching could be their undoing, as it has been in the past.

Latin American presidents, through a UNASUR statement of support and participation in the inauguration, have endorsed Maduro’s ascendance to the Presidency.  Their strong interest, for a variety of reasons, is in a balance between continuity and change in Venezuela. Although there are signs that both Chile and Colombia wavered momentarily, South American governments overall were united in their preference for a chavista government, as this would favor both  internal and regional stability.The United States, on the other hand, has appeared timid.  Maduro’s accusations of U.S. attacks on him and the presence of Iranian leader Ahmadinejad at the inauguration made it impossible for Washington to send a senior emissary to the swearing-in.  Yet the evident absence of the United States, even after the UNASUR endorsement, was petty.  Through statements calling for a recount of 100 percent of the votes both the State Department and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations came across as unable to outgrow a grudge match with Chávez or to grasp that the American position would isolate Washington once again from prevailing sentiment in South America.

There were two winners in the Venezuelan election:  Maduro, who is now the elected President, and Capriles, who managed to secure nearly half the votes in the face of overwhelming odds.  The latter comes out ahead in the long run, but only if he manages his cards wisely.  Washington, meanwhile, seems still not to understand two things:  First, after Bush v. Gore, it will be at least another generation until Americans can say anything about how to count votes.  It was legitimate and appropriate for the OAS to demand a recount, as its record in election monitoring is impeccable.  Secretary General Insulza achieved the core objective of the Organization and should be recognized for having done so.  For the American government to have taken the position that it did suggests an inability to understand the consequences of the 2000 election in Florida for its credibility in election-related issues in the region.  Second, democratic change in Latin America is typically an evolutionary process.  This may be less satisfying to some policymakers who would prefer to see a foe’s outright defeat, but it may be better, for Chavismo’s enemies in both Washington and Caracas, than having their favorite step in at this particular time of high tensions.  If Capriles and his coalition can brand themselves as democratic reformists rather than golpistas, they have a good chance of coming to power when Maduro’s six-year term is exhausted, or even before, and if they convey a message of responsible opposition, key South American governments might well approve of an alternation in power the next time around.

Mercosur, Unasur Holding Firm on Democracy in Paraguay

Photo by Christian Van Der Henst S. via Flickr , http://www.flickr.com/photos/cvander/5215442086/

As Paraguay marked the one-month anniversary of the summary removal of President Lugo from office, the distance between South America and the rest of the hemisphere on how to deal with the “constitutional coup” remains great and is perhaps growing.  OAS Secretary General Insulza announced last week that the regional organization’s Permanent Council decided to take no further action, except to send a “support mission” to Asunción.  The Obama Administration’s inaction further indicates that the United States is prepared to allow things to stand unchallenged and even unexamined.

Mercosur, Unasur, Spain and, more predictably, ALBA have all been tougher.  Mercosur last week announced that the new Paraguayan government, led by President Federico Franco, is still barred from participating in the organization’s activities, although the government to be elected in April 2013 will be welcome.  Unasur made clear that Paraguay’s participation will be suspended “until democratic order is reestablished.”  ALBA countries have minced no words in condemning Lugo’s ouster.  Spanish Foreign Minister García-Margallo suggested publicly last week that Paraguay’s participation in the Ibero-American Summit in November may not be appropriate.

This division among hemispheric players is reminiscent of the tensions following the coup that removed democratically elected President Mel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago.  Whereas the United States quickly softened its stance on the value of isolating the golpista government of Roberto Micheletti in 2009 and later became Tegucigalpa’s most ardent advocate for speedy readmission to the OAS – while Brazil and most South Americans remained committed to seeking a more democratic outcome – Washington is now showing patience with the right-wing factions that ousted Lugo.  Mercosur’s formula for welcoming the government to be elected next year helps avoid the sort of crisis for the incoming leadership that hindered Honduran President Lobo’s efforts to push back against his country’s golpistas, who to this day are undermining his administration.