Andres Oppenheimer

Top OAS candidate leaves many open questions

Barring the last-minute emergence of another candidate, former Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro is likely to be elected as new head of the 34-country Organization of American States (OAS) in a secret vote on March 18.

I recently interviewed Almagro, so far the only candidate for the job, who says he has the backing of 20 OAS-member countries. I was left with some troubling questions about whether, if elected, he will resurrect the Washington-D.C.-based organization from its current irrelevance.

To be fair, the OAS is still a bigger and potentially more important institution than the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), an Ecuador-based group of South American nations that was created to exclude the United States and Mexico from regional decisions. Judging from its role in Venezuela’s political crisis, UNASUR has become a de facto mutual protection society for repressive regimes.

The OAS has a Democratic Charter, and a quite respected Human Rights Commission. In addition, the OAS has more than a dozen anti-drug, security and education agencies.

But in recent years, the OAS has been overshadowed by UNASUR in major regional crises.

When the Venezuelan government recently ordered the arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and the opposition called for massive protests, South American countries — at Venezuela’s request — invited UNASUR, not the OAS, to send a mediation mission to that country.

Likewise, when student protests in Venezuela left 43 dead last year, and the Venezuelan government arrested leading opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, South American countries sympathetic with Venezuela’s radical populist regime also asked UNASUR to send a mediation mission there.

Predictably, that mission didn’t get any concessions from the Venezuelan government, such as meeting the protesters’ demands for the release of all political prisoners. Critics say that UNASUR mission in fact helped the Venezuelan government win time to weaken the protests.

Asked what he would do if elected as new OAS chief, Almagro said he would work to strengthen democracy and human rights — no surprise here, since even the worst dictatorships claim to support democracy and human rights — and launch several new initiatives, including a “Government School of the Americas,” and a “Pan-American Education Organization.”

As to how he would fund these projects, considering that the OAS is financially strapped, Almagro said that he would restore the OAS’ financial health by cutting costs, and by teaming up with the World Bank and regional institutions for specific projects.

Turning to political issues, I asked Almagro whether he would call for the immediate release of Lopez and other Venezuelan political prisoners, as outgoing OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza and the United Nations have done recently.

“We have been dealing with this issue within the framework of UNASUR,” Almagro responded, adding that “within the framework of UNASUR” he would support any changes that may be needed along the way.

When I noted that he was not answering my question, Almagro gave me a long-winded answer, which essentially said he could not answer it until elected as OAS chief. He said that, as foreign minister, he has requested Venezuela provide the “maximum judicial guarantees” for Lopez, but that “we cannot intervene in another country’s judicial system.”

Days later, following the arrest of Ledezma, I asked Almagro for further clarification.

In an e-mail sent by a spokesman, Almagro repeated that “At this time, the Secretary General of the OAS is Mr. Insulza, and I can’t talk on behalf of the institution, not even hypothetically.” He added that “there is an ongoing mediation process between Venezuela’s government and the opposition that is led by UNASUR, which we hope will bear fruit.”

My opinion: Hmmm. What’s most worrying about Almagro is not his convoluted rhetoric — he’s pretty good at “cantinfleo,” as Mexicans refer to the art of using difficult words to elude clear answers — but some of the things he says.

For instance, I’m not sure that the OAS will recover its role as the leading regional institution under a new chief who seems convinced that Venezuela’s crisis should be solved “within the framework of UNASUR.”

On the other hand, to be fair to Almagro, it wouldn’t make sense for him as a candidate to strongly criticize Venezuela ahead of the OAS election, and risk losing several Caribbean and Central American countries that still depend on Venezuela’s oil subsidies.

Unless a new candidate shows up, we may have to wait until after Almagro’s election to find out whether he has any spine, or a real commitment to defend democracy in the region.