By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg
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