As Uruguay’s foreign minister from 2010-2015, Luis Almagro, helped put the tiny South American nation at the vanguard of far-flung social-justice issues. The country received prisoners from Guantánamo and refugees from Syria, and it helped lead reconstruction efforts in earthquake-shattered Haiti. It also pioneered marijuana decriminalization.
But when it comes to human rights violations in nearby Venezuela, some worry that the country’s response has been muted at best.
On Wednesday, barring a last-minute candidate, Almagro is poised to be elected secretary general of the 34-member Organization of American States, where the Venezuela issue looms large. He’s running unopposed to replace Chilean diplomat José Miguel Insulza, who is stepping down after serving two terms.
Almagro has promised to come in as a reformer and turn the rudderless OAS into the premier regional body to defend “democracy, liberty and human rights.” While some in the hemisphere propose gutting the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Almagro has said he will strengthen both and create the Inter-American System for the Prevention of Social Conflicts.
He has also promised to fully incorporate Cuba into the system.
But Uruguay’s track record within the body worries some. In written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Russ Dallen, a well-known investment banker and media owner in Venezuela, said Uruguay shared responsibility in letting the South American nation off the hook.
In March 2014, a month after widespread protests in Venezuela sparked a crackdown that left more than 40 people dead on both sides, Washington was pushing for the OAS to take a stand. Opposition Deputy María Corina Machado was invited to speak before the body, but Venezuela leaned on its allies and the OAS voted 22 to 11 to bar the media from that session.
Once behind closed doors, members “voted to take the discussion of Venezuela off the agenda,” Dallen wrote. “More worrisome for the future, Uruguay was one of the 22 nations that voted with Venezuela.”
José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said it’s unrealistic to expect tiny Uruguay to take a stand on Venezuela when powerful neighbors like Brazil and Argentina wouldn’t.
“To demand from Uruguay and Almagro an attitude different from the rest of the Western Hemisphere with the exception of Washington is unfair,” he said. “That’s real-world politics.”
But Vivanco said he doesn’t doubt Almagro’s credentials.
“Every time that I have approached him on human rights issues on a global level, he has delivered,” Vivanco said. “That’s more than I can say for other foreign ministers.”
In a sense, the Uruguayan is more interested in being effective than being high-profile, said Joy Olson, the executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, which endorsed Almagro’s candidacy.
Even as the OAS was dodging on Venezuela, Almagro was working through the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to help establish short-lived talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition.
“I think there is this idea that you solve problems by denouncing them and that if you are not denouncing them often enough, you are not addressing the problem. I don’t think that’s right and I don’t think that’s how Latin America sees it,” she said. “I think [Almagro] is a smart a guy … looking at different forms of engagement and moving forward in a way that people might not get right away.”
Quiet diplomacy, however, can seem disingenuous to some. Santiago Canton, the executive director of Robert F. Kennedy Partners for Human Rights, said Venezuela’s sins are too blatant to ignore.
A recent report by the United Nations found that between 2012-2013, there were almost 1,300 extrajudicial killings there, many of the countries top opposition politicians were either in jail or undergoing investigation, and people were scared to congregate for fear of arrest.
“When you have a country like Venezuela with clear, grave and systematic violations of human rights… the countries in the region need to speak up,” he said. “Uruguay should have spoken up, and it didn’t.”
The transition comes as the United States, which has been cut out of other regional bodies, needs the OAS.
“In a situation where Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Argentina are throwing around the powerful imperialism label, the U.S. must tread carefully lest it play into that narrative,” Dallen wrote in his Senate testimony. “Developing coalitions and multi-national support in regional bodies — so the U.S. is not acting alone — is the best way to defang the imperialism charge.”
Washington’s inability to harness the power of the OAS is “one of the biggest failures of the Obama administration,” Dallen said.
A lawyer by training, Almagro was Uruguay’s ambassador to China and a representative in Iran and Germany before becoming foreign minister. Along with Spanish, he speaks English and French. He’s also the father of seven.
By all accounts, he will be taking over an organization that’s broke and dysfunctional.
“The OAS is in terrible shape and there’s a consensus on that,” said Michael Shifter with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “It’s in a financial crisis, it has severe institutional problems, it’s spread too thin and doesn’t have a very clear, sustained focus. And politically, he has to deal with a very complicated hemisphere and member governments that don’t take the OAS too seriously.”
If the task seems daunting, Almagro says he’s up for it.
“The OAS is worth it,” he wrote in Uruguay’s El Pais newspaper. “It represents a unique space for dialogue — there’s not another one like it. It represents the rainbow of visions and ideas from the entire continent.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said Russ Dallen spoke at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. His testimony was submitted in writing.