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

Guatemala: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward?

Efrain Rios Montt testifying at his genocide trial | Photo by the Guatemalan government | public domain

Efraín Ríos Montt testifying at his genocide trial | Photo by the Guatemalan government | public domain

The decision of Guatemala’s highest court to overturn the guilty verdict in the trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt – found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity – has raised serious questions about whether, as many had hoped, the country’s elites will ever allow justice, national reconciliation, and democracy to move forward.  What was a clear victory for many in and outside of Guatemala has evolved into a massive setback, at least for now.  For the victims and survivors of the atrocities, the trial was the first time that their tragic stories got an open and respectful hearing.  For the noble prosecutors and judges who pursued the case despite personal risk and beat back repeated maneuvers by Ríos Montt’s defense team to derail proceedings, it was a solid validation of their commitment to build rule of law.  For Guatemalan society, it meant unprecedented public discussion of the past – and the symbolism of the condemned dictator being taken away by bailiffs promoted closure.  For the international community, it proved that persistence could help a country with chronically weak and politicized institutions become the first in the world to put a former head of state on trial for genocide.  But now the outcome is cloudy.

From the beginning, the long-term impact of the trial would depend on the followup.  Immediately after the verdict was issued, President Pérez Molina, a former military commander, set aside his vehement denials that genocide occurred and said he respected the court’s verdict.  But he conditioned issuance of an official government apology, as ordered by the court, on the exhaustion of all defense appeals – which could take years – and was noncommittal in responding to the court’s call for more investigations of people involved in the atrocities.  While he personally has immunity from prosecution, allegations of his own activities during the Ríos Montt period would obviously be problematic for him.  The powerful business organization CACIF, long aligned with the military, rejected the verdict and began mobilizing resistance to further investigations.  Even moderate politicians, such as former Vice President Eduardo Stein, criticized the genocide ruling and calls for more investigations, apparently fearing that more ethnic groups will stake claims.  Like other dictators facing justice, Ríos Montt has already suffered a supposed health problem requiring that he be moved out of prison and into a military hospital – leaving observers wondering how much of his 80-year sentence he would serve.

The U.S. Government supported the trial process and proclaimed it a victory for Guatemalan judicial institutions.  But it appeared cautious on next steps even before the upper court overturned the verdict (on which U.S. comment is lacking).  Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp who visited Guatemala last month and gave the trial a push, and U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Arnold Chacon, attended some proceedings.  The U.S. Embassy pledged its continued support to “credible, independent, transparent, and impartial judicial processes,” but its statement also suggested a lack of enthusiasm for more.  “In these moments it is significant to remember that Guatemala, as a country, was not on trial, but rather two individuals, one of whom was absolved and the other convicted,” it said.  It added that “now is the opportunity to advance to real reconciliation” – a prospect that appeared premature even before the upper court action.  Neither the prosecution nor defense spoke much during the trial of Washington’s direct or indirect role in the 1980s violence – a situation that U.S. policymakers may prefer to continue.  If so, it’s a far cry from the position taken by President Bill Clinton, who during a visit to Guatemala in 1999 apologized for American support for security forces that committed “violent and widespread repression.