The Oppenheimer Report

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. wins rare diplomatic battle in Latin America

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.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

  • In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: It’s time for International Anti-corruption Court

    The more I read about the massive government corruption in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and other countries where top officials have been accused of stealing fortunes with near total impunity, the more I like a new proposal that is making the rounds in world legal circles — creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court.

Argentine vice president Amado Boudou, right, shakes hands with China's president Xi Jinping during his visit to the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires on July 19, 2014.

    In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: China is flexing its muscle in Latin America

    On his visit to Latin America, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised new trade and investment deals that he said will lift China’s booming economic ties with the region to new heights. Many Latin American leaders hailed it as great news amid their countries’ economic slowdowns.

  • In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: BRICS’ emerging world bank: good idea, bad timing

    This week’s announcement by the presidents of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the so-called BRICS countries — that they will create their own international financial institution was greeted with polite skepticism and some criticism in Washington D.C. But on this issue, the BRICS are doing the right thing.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category