Something very unusual happened at the 34-country Organization of American States (OAS) annual foreign ministers’ meeting last week: the United States and Mexico won a diplomatic victory over authoritarian populist governments that wanted a free hand to suppress human rights monitors and critical media.
It’s a rare occurrence, because Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and other members of their radical-populist ALBA alliance — often backed by bigger countries such as Brazil and Argentina — had been steadily winning ground in recent years in their offensive to weaken OAS human rights and freedom of the press monitoring groups.
But at the OAS annual meeting held Wednesday-Friday in Guatemala, an ALBA-backed Ecuadorean motion to paralyze the OAS’s Inter-American Human Rights Commission was soundly defeated in a secret vote.
Ecuador’s failed offensive against the seven-member Inter-American Human Rights Commission — a semi-independent OAS agency that is highly respected by independent human rights groups — was seeking to paralyze it by electing three new members including an Ecuadorean official and other pro-ALBA candidates.
The ALBA offensive was expected to win, in part thanks to the votes of many Caribbean countries that receive generous oil subsidies from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program.
Instead, the secret vote turned into a crushing defeat for the ALBA alliance, and for Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, a recently reelected autocrat who had embarked on a personal crusade against the OAS rights commission.
Mexican jurist Jose Orozco, who heads the OAS commission and has a good record in the defense of human rights, was easily reelected with 22 of the OAS’ 34 votes. U.S. candidate James Cavallaro, a Harvard and Stanford University law professor who has been advising the Commission for two decades, was elected with a surprising 20 vote majority.
Ecuador’s candidate Erick Roberts Garcés, a Correa crony who has been openly critical of the Commission, was not elected. Instead, the foreign ministers picked a Brazilian candidate, who was elected with a relatively small 18-vote majority.
“This was a great victory for the Commission as an institution, as well as for the protection of human rights in the Americas,” José Miguel Vivanco, a top official of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, told me in a telephone interview from the meeting. “It was also a major defeat for the ALBA countries, who were hoping to elect a member to undermine the system from within.”
Vivanco said that “it was very significant that the Mexican and U.S. candidates, both of whom have excellent records in the defense of human rights, were elected with more votes than any other candidate.”
U.S. officials kept a low profile, trying not to portray this as a U.S. victory, in line with the Obama administration’s policy of not making waves in order to prevent populist autocrats from stirring up anti-American sentiment.
U.S. Ambassador to the OAS Carmen Lomellin told me after the voting that “It was a very positive outcome, because member states still defend the autonomy and independence of the Commission.” She and other U.S. officials attributed the victory of the Mexican and U.S. candidates largely to their respective professional qualifications.
My opinion: It’s too early to know whether this marks a turning point in Latin America’s diplomacy after more than a decade of steady erosion of democracy, human rights and freedom of the press principles.
Only recently, many of the same countries that participated at the OAS vote took the ridiculous step of electing the region’s last military dictator — Gen. Raúl Castro of Cuba — as president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC.)
And most Latin American countries are still looking the other way at Venezuela’s failure to do a serious recount of its disputed April 14 presidential elections, an omission that may set a bad precedent for future elections in the region.
But the defeat of ALBA’s offensive against the OAS rights commission is great news, because it is a politically neutral group that criticizes human rights abuses and press censorship regardless of where they take place.
It has been just as critical of U.S. rights violations at the Guantanamo base, or against undocumented immigrants, as it is of human rights abuses in Venezuela or Bolivia.
It would be great if, instead of defending the cause of human rights and press freedoms timidly, through a secret vote, more countries would do it openly and proudly. There have been too many setbacks in recent years — both in Latin America and in the United States — to let fundamental freedoms slip further.