Assault on the OAS

These last few weeks have been unfortunate for Latin America. In addition to the massive earthquakes that struck Haiti and Chile, the region has also been shaken by a hunger-strike death in Cuba and a growing crackdown on human rights and opposition in Venezuela.Making matters worse, the region also witnessed a superficially silly but actually dangerous attempt by the ALBA countries – Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay – to create, with the acquiescence of Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, a regional organization excluding the United States and Canada. The hope is that this new grouping will eventually supplant the Organization of American States.The OAS will have to decide on March 24 whether to re-elect Chilean diplomat and politician José Miguel Insulza as its Secretary General. It should, because Insulza is probably the only figure who can both learn from and correct the OAS’s mistakes of the past five years, and thus save it from oblivion.The crackdown on freedom of the press, the rule of law, and electoral processes in Venezuela – as reported by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and, most recently, in a damning, 300-page report by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission – has been steadily worsening. The OAS can involve itself in domestic electoral, political, or human rights issues only if a majority of its members mandates it to do so, and countries like Mexico and Brazil are fearful of picking fights with Venezuela. Nevertheless, Hugo Chávez is right to be nervous.Legislative elections next September will be more challenging for Chávez than on previous occasions. Electric power blackouts, a prolonged drought, inflation, and shortages are making life increasingly difficult for ordinary Venezuelans, and Chávez’s standing in opinion polls is dropping. So is his international stature and popularity, especially after a Spanish judge accused him of conspiring to assassinate former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana in Madrid back in 2002.Moreover, Chávez has suffered several regional setbacks recently, and all have domestic repercussions. The death of Cuban hunger striker and dissident Orlando Zapata, while Latin leaders were pow-wowing in Cancún and creating their new organization, unleashed a wave of indignation against the Castro brothers in the US, Europe, and Latin America (though not among its governments, which all remained silent).Chávez knows that his personal security depends on the permanent protection of the Cuban intelligence services. Any change in government in Havana would leave him in a tight spot.But, just as Chávez is worried about rumblings and dissidents in Cuba, the island’s leaders are concerned about the news from Caracas; they know they cannot survive without Chávez’s oil and subsidies. That is why the Castro brothers dispatched the regime’s number three boss, Ramiro Valdez, who has been involved in Cuban security since 1959, to keep watch on matters in Venezuela.Venezuela’s circle of friends in the region is shrinking. The new Honduran and Chilean presidents are not allies, unlike their predecessors. The end of President Alvaro Uribe’s re-election bid in Colombia will complicate life for the Caracas caudillo, removing a pretext for his own perpetuation in power. It may also give way to a president in Bogota who advocates a tougher line with Chávez than Uribe did.Given all of this, as well as Chávez’s penchant for spectacular antics and the Cubans’ skill in taking the diplomatic offensive, the ALBA countries may be preparing some major Latin American mischief.Honduras was suspended from the OAS last year, after the June coup that overthrew elected president Manuel Zelaya. Subsequently, the interim government was able to resist pressure from abroad to restore him, held a previously scheduled election, and handed power over to a new, democratically-elected president, Porfirio Lobo, who has now been recognized by the US, the EU, and several, though not all, of the region’s governments.Chávez, the Cubans and their allies, however, want no part of Lobo, and vetoed his attending the Cancún summit where the new Latin American organization was conceived. That it might appear absurd to invite Cuba, which has not had an elected president since the 1950’s, and not Lobo, who was cleanly elected just months ago, did not seem to worry either Mexican host Felipe Calderón or his colleagues.But the problem is that the OAS will be holding its annual assembly in June this year in Peru, and several countries -– Canada, Costa Rica, the US, Colombia, Panama, Peru itself, and probably Chile – will push to have Honduras re-admitted. Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and possibly Argentina will refuse.The outcome may well be that these countries leave the OAS, and seek refuge in the new organization that they just established. Mexico and Brazil will not follow, but would not oppose the move, either. The fact that the Cancún meeting provided no funds, location, charter, or staff for the new organization will not matter: Latin American leaders are used to building castles in the air.But even a purely rhetorical structure would probably sound the death knell of the OAS, and weaken its human rights instruments, which have proved increasingly valuable and effective. The main challenge facing the OAS – if it survives the departure of the radical left – is to close the loopholes in its basic documents regarding the collective defense of democracy and human rights.These loopholes consist in not defining precisely what an interruption to constitutional rule signifies – just the overthrow of an elected president, or also shutting down a legislature or TV station? – and giving the OAS teeth beyond suspension of members for violating its precepts. This review should be the main task of the re-elected Secretary-General, together with keeping the OAS united and defending Latin American democracy against the ALBA onslaught.

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