April 7, 2005 | WebMemo on Latin America
Whoever wins the vote this coming Monday to become the new Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS) will have his hands full. The forum's new chief will have to restore credibility to an institution whose last leader resigned in scandal, continue badly needed restructuring, and defend democracy and free markets in a region tempted to fall back on old habits of corruption and authoritarianism.
El Salvador's former president Francisco Flores, Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, and Chilean Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza are the declared contenders. The United States will have to work with one of them to restore the Organization's usefulness.
The last Secretary-General, Miguel Angel Rodríguez, resigned in October 2004 to face accusations that he accepted kickbacks when he was president of Costa Rica. His departure, after barely a month in office, came on the heels of a vote observation controversy in which the OAS and the Carter Center, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, accepted limitations imposed by the Venezuelan government in monitoring a referendum on President Hugo Chávez's rule.
Both events dimmed the Organization's star at a time when it was just beginning to shine. Unlike the United Nations, which admits any country with a pulse, the OAS is chartered to be a community of democracies and defender of human rights. But only in the 1990s, when the majority of its members embraced competitive elections and open trade, did it begin to live up to those ideals.
Over the years, the OAS had become a crazy quilt of committees and directorates tacked onto the core structure without regard to authority or function. Some 19 offices reported directly to the Secretary-General, who was often too busy mediating international disputes to supervise them. Budgeting was not tied to tangible results, nor was there a career track for permanent employees.
In 2003, the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche recommended options for an overhaul. Secretary-General Rodríguez wanted to reduce the number of offices to seven operational directorates, four dealing with priority issues: democracy and political affairs, human rights, development, and hemispheric security. After Rodríguez left, Acting Secretary-General Luigi Einaudi oversaw many of these reforms, but the new OAS chief will need to continue in the same spirit.
As Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean slowly embrace accountability and open markets, South America is galloping in the other direction.
Argentina shuns debt payments, and its president hypocritically denounces human rights abusers while embracing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Bolivia's elected government is threatened by street mobs demanding nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry. Ecuador's president unconstitutionally dismissed the country's supreme court. At the far extreme, a former coup plotter has become the elected dictator of Venezuela, diverting state oil company profits to support revolutionary movements in neighboring countries.
Although Brazil, Chile, and Colombia buck this trend, their maverick neighbors could form a populist voting block in the OAS's General Assembly. Already, Venezuela has introduced a "Social Charter" that would contradict the forum's Inter-American Democratic Charter by empowering governments to replace civil liberties with populist entitlements.
A Three-Way Split
Though well qualified, none of the candidates to lead the OAS are perfect. El Salvador's Francisco Flores is youthful, conservative, and energetic. But U.S. backing in return for his support of the U.S. liberation of Iraq and hard line against Fidel Castro will cost him votes in left-leaning South America.
Mexico's Luis Ernesto Derbez is a respected World Bank economist. But his foreign policy experience dates from January 2003, when he assumed his current post-right after his country withdrew from the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance.
Chile's José Miguel Insulza is a capable cabinet minister from one of Latin America's most prosperous and engaged democracies. But Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez backs him, raising suspicions that he might be captive to a hidden agenda.
All three contenders say that development assistance in Latin America should be the Organization's first priority-a moot point because the OAS doesn't have any money to give away. U.S. diplomats should point out that economic depravation is actually a symptom of deeper ills-unaccountable government, crony capitalism, and weak rule of law.
Regardless of who wins, the Bush administration should urge the new Secretary-General to stick to the core principles-established at the Organization's inception in 1948-of promoting democracy, defending human rights, and helping to establish markets based on free choice with minimal government interference. The United States should also insist on a structural makeover that better supports these ideals and helps sustain the progress already achieved.
Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.