The Organization of American States: On Its Deathbed?

O.A.S. Secretary General José Miguel Insulza attends a meeting during the conference "Latin America: Integration or Fragmentation?" in Mexico City on April 18. (Photo: Luis Acosta / AFP-Getty Images)

Illness is not usually the equivalence of death. This aphorism is being applied by some to the health of the Organization of American States (O.A.S.), the premiere regional organization and forum for the democratic nations of the Western Hemisphere. As the international political landscape has evolved from the Cold War to the wars on drugs and terror, the United States, the O.A.S.'s proverbial elephant, has diverted much of its attention to events occurring outside of the region. Thus, today it almost seems to be a fallacy that as goes the United States, so goes the O.A.S. In terms of investment and trade matters this may be a legitimate concern, but the long-term political, economic, and social thrust of the other Western Hemispheric nations does not seem to be adversely affected by a cutback in United States attention to the region. In fact, many of them have thrived, with a number of them welcoming a lesser role for the United States because this will allow for pluralism, diversification, and experimentation now that Washington's often-heavy hand has been lightened. However, a lesser role that has translated to the United States' virtual disappearance concerning hemispheric affairs in the last several years was not originally envisaged. The subsequent result has been a growing number of voices inviting inquiry as to the contemporary relevance of the O.A.S.

Since too often money is the bottom line that drives many decisions, the rest of the member nations of the O.A.S., for various reasons, should phase-back the United States' role as the region's predominant financial backer by increasing their individual contributions to the organization so that their quotas are of relatively proportionate size to their G.D.P. or some other similar formula. This way, the other sister nations would have more of an equitable basis to insist that their counsel should be sought-after. This arrangement would also allow the O.A.S. to seek out a new niche for itself in the post-Cold War world, permitting the regional body to focus on some of the other systemic problems facing the hemisphere rather than just the endless debate over the definition of democracy and the nature, depth, and scope of its member nations' relationship with Washington. Frustration has begot frustration as a growing number of political figures and policy analysts have realized that the O.A.S.'s current structure may not suit its contemporary needs: talk of new alliances and differently-constituted regional and sub-regional bodies has emboldened some to sound a potential death knell for the O.A.S., concluding that it may no longer be a viable institution for serving the region's needs.

Skepticism and marginalization have been prescribed by some of the O.A.S.'s more caustic critics, but better solutions may exist. Through a calculated step back to allow for the full participation of the other nations of the body, the U.S. can help create the space for a creative future for the O.A.S. to better deal with its ailment deriving from bureaucratic wrangling over confusion of mission and purpose; what is actually needed are bold new ideas that perhaps could work in conjunction with what O.A.S. Secretary General José Miguel Insulza seems to have in mind when he speaks of institutional reform. While the cure may fall somewhere between Washington's overbearing attention at best and its sheer neglect at worst, the organization must at least make a case that it deserves to exist or relegate itself to the history books so that the region can plan for the future.

Post-Cold War Oblivion

The Monroe Doctrine decreed that the Western Hemisphere was not something to be meddled with by the former colonial powers; it was to be its own autonomous region with its own aspirations. Inevitably, the hemisphere was destined to be dominated by the United States. Although Washington tried to sustain this control by various means for many years—from Teddy Roosevelt's Corollary and Big Stick policies through F. D. R.'s Good Neighbor game plan, to the relentless campaign of intervention throughout the Cold War—the United States eventually worked out an operating formula of how to dominate the hemisphere as the regional hegemon, eventually catapulting itself to the status of a world superpower as well. The role of the global policeman has certainly preoccupied the political and economic attention of the United States, which has resulted in a new wave of concern over Washington's long-term intentions with regard to the O.A.S. and the oversight role that United States policymakers would like for it to play in the region.

While the O.A.S. is the world's oldest regional organization, dating back to 1890 when the Pan-American Union was founded, it was not formalized with its present name, range of procedures, goals, and responsibilities until 1948. Historically, this date coincides with the beginning of the dichotomization of the world into democratic and communist spheres of influence. During this period, Washington has sought to maintain a neo-Monroe Doctrine policy aimed at a hemisphere free from the talons of menacing outsiders—in this case communism—while concentrating on using the O.A.S. primarily as a wedge against the spread of the Iron Curtain and as a transmitter for United States regional policy formulations.

One of the most tangible demonstrations of the hemisphere's commitment to both democracy and Washington's fierce anti-Communist mission was the suspension of the Castro government's O.A.S. membership in 1962, three years after the takeover of Cuba by revolutionary forces. Since a central principle of the organization has been that democracy is the only suitable governing form for the hemisphere, the Castro regime was obviously on a collision course with this ideal. Symbolically, the flag of Cuba still flies in the O.A.S.'s headquarters, as the nation itself has not been removed—only separated—from membership in hope that, one day, Cuba will be able to meet the ideological standard and economic preference set by the regional body.

However, there are myriad examples of activities that transpired on the Latin American battlefield of the Cold War that have no particular linkage to the support of democracy, and where the O.A.S. was unwilling or unable to stand its ground against the long-standing United States disregard for the sovereign rights of the regional nations. The archly politicized United States plot to intervene in the Dominican Republic in 1965, the brutal 1973 coup by Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and the bloody crackdown on the F.M.L.N. in El Salvador during the 1970's and 1980's, witnessed the sacrifice of thousands in the name of democracy and anticommunism. The O.A.S. largely abstained itself from these conflicts, establishing its mandated irrelevance at the behest of the United States until the Contadora meetings surfaced toward the end of this period. These area conflicts called into question Washington's true intentions regarding democratic enhancement and the ability of a region dominated by a global superpower to freely act as well as legitimately and appropriately handle political and social conflicts in order to defend the sovereign immunity of its members.

Observing Elections

By the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, Cuba was the only surviving communist country in the hemisphere. Democracy had emphatically triumphed over communism, but in a new world professedly dominated by capitalism and Western values, where was the O.A.S. to fit in? The Cold War had provided a perfect atmosphere and cover for the regional body to flex its muscles as an agent for the United States by projecting its authority in the name of preserving democracy throughout the hemisphere. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was a palpable enough event to demonstrate that democracy, roughly defined, had won, but at what cost and how authentically?

The O.A.S. now focuses more on the defensive side of democratic preservation by conducting Electoral Observation Missions (E.O.M.), a much more constructive form of intervention when juxtaposed to the O.A.S.'s previous specialty of being a United States adjunct in fighting the Cold War. However, E.O.M.'s are not as attention grabbing or as difficult to countenance as sponsoring the undermining of the right to regional autonomy by an O.A.S. member nation or the overthrow of an elected government by one means or another. In general, monitoring affords a relatively inexpensive, low-profile, and time-consuming operation.

Since the United States has refocused its vision and agenda to confront a new world of international terrorism and trade, the O.A.S. would be wise to revise its interests to see if some kind of parallel cause remains. It also needs to realize that other very real problems, aside from "what type of democracy is best?" plague the region, including the institutionalization of corruption, the declining state of public security in most Latin American countries, the extreme concentration of wealth, the brittle immigration issue, and grievous shortfalls in issues of social justice. This is compounded by the need to discard the otherwise sterile debate between the respective advocates of representative and participatory democracy.

What Kind of Democracy Is Best?

One way the O.A.S. was able to simulate its triumphant emergence out of the Cold War was the enactment of Resolution 1080 in 1991, emphasizing representative democracy as the path to peace and prosperity throughout the hemisphere. Canada's entrance to the O.A.S. in the previous year was an important moment for the regional organization because it extended the O.A.S.'s reach to the entire Western Hemisphere and included every sovereign nation in the region as a member, save Cuba. This also helped to solidify the concept of representative democracy as the ideal political form for the Americas, since Canada fit the description, however inert the application is. Resolution 1080 allowed for the further consolidation of representative democracy as essential to the functioning of the O.A.S. after the Inter-American Democratic Charter was passed, memorably, on Sept. 11, 2001, in Lima, Peru.

The insistence on the primacy of representative democracy in the Western Hemisphere seems to be indicative of a United States-styled approach that is generally skeptical of direct democracy. Many critics of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez see his insistence on a more participatory and broad-ended societal involvement by the average Venezuelan as evidence of a further move toward his goal of 21st-century socialism. But the argument for a more general approval of democracy as compared with a specific endorsement of one genre over another may be gaining ground, as referenced in the recent Woodrow Wilson Institute publication The 'New Left' and Democratic Governance in Latin America. The report states that representative democracy has not always been able to respond effectively to the social needs of most Latin Americans. This is exemplified by the fact that Latin America has the largest income disparity between rich and poor of any region in the world. If participatory democracy is the path that one government chooses to take, that decision should not be thwarted by proponents of representative democracy, if the former system does not impede genuine democracy, justice, or peace.

Democracy is ultimately about the availability of choice in career, goods, and services, as well as the possibility of fulfilling oneself in a well-meaning society as a full stakeholder and political actor. Divisiveness over what kind of democracy is the preferred model should be of lesser importance. Since the O.A.S. Charter explicitly references representative democracy in its introductory paragraph, the current consensus of critics of the new Left seems to be that participatory democracy poses a threat to the hemisphere's cohesiveness. This conflict appears to be reflected in the drawn-down version of the tensions that now exist between the United States and Venezuela, which are being played out in different governing styles rather than working toward mitigating other hemispheric problems such as crime, gangs, inflation, drugs, etc. The O.A.S. would be well advised to reconsider the rigidity with which it subscribes to an exclusive endorsement of representative democracy as part of its checklist to achieving good health.

The Inevitable Insulza Strategy

Because his attention seems to be riveted on the 2009 Chilean presidential elections in which he is sure to run, O.A.S. Secretary General Insulza may be only part of what the doctor ordered in Latin America or only part of the problem. As a graduate student, socialist, and as a political advisor in the Foreign Ministry under Chilean President Salvador Allende, he witnessed Cold War atrocities first hand, ably suiting him to lead the O.A.S. on its new path in the 21st century.

Although Insulza's candidacy for the top O.A.S. position was opposed by the United States due to his criticism of Washington's Iraq policy, as well as his leftist politics, he eventually was elected over Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez in the 2005 race because of his hemispheric reputation for having a forward-looking attitude. This apparently included traveling the low road when his self-interests could be served, as exampled by his quick trip to Haiti during the secretary race, where he met with the appallingly scarred interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue to beseech him to support his candidacy. He swept the election and then pledged to the Americas that he would deliver peace, prosperity, security, democracy, and human rights through true hemispheric solidarity. In his inaugural address, Insulza specifically cited the need to reinvigorate the organization's political relevance, its capacity to act, and the fortification and implementation of the inherent hemispheric qualities listed above.

Although the secretary general is formally known as a man of the left, he has walked a fine line over how far to let his ideologies play a part in the pragmatic job that needs to be accomplished. While he has remained relatively coherent in his respect for democracy and political participation in general, when it comes to the ongoing hemispheric preoccupation with how to properly categorize and contain, if at all, Chávez, he has more often than not played Washington's card. The dismantling of an opposition media outlet, his favorability toward participatory democracy (and possibly more), and his constitutional reforms drafted by a legislature that contains almost no opposition to him all have ignited criticism against the Venezuelan leader from an unlikely source: Secretary General Insulza. Although they purportedly share many of the same political, social, and economic beliefs, perhaps due to their respective personal backgrounds and experiences, they continued to disagree over Venezuela's approach toward advancing and retaining democracy. Some who know them well say that the difference is more a matter of class background than ideology.

Obviously, Insulza is conducting a balancing act regarding how to assert and amplify the power of the O.A.S. while simultaneously servicing his over-riding interest in his own political future. But to do this well, he must first be able to deal with the political fork in the road represented by the United States and Venezuela. Of course, constructively engaging Washington is essential to the future of the organization, and Insulza's continued perseverance in working toward hemispheric solidarity while creating the space for a new United States role in the O.A.S. will resonate in the near future (specifically, after the 2008 United States presidential election). President Chávez has been successful in propagating multiple regional and subregional organizations that focus on the social and solidarity needs of the most desperate in Latin America, something that Insulza should appreciate and admire. His election and resulting tenure at the O.A.S., while perhaps no more than relatively small in importance in the nature of things, at the very least has alerted the United States to the fact that Washington would be wise to revert its attention back to the South or risk losing even more regional political capital and further sickening an already ill organization.

A Western Hemisphere Without the West?

The often interventionist and officious attitude of the United States has helped to encourage the radicalization of many Latin Americans and inadvertently promoted the election of many left-leaning governments, some of which hold profound misgivings over United States aspirations and demands regarding the rest of the hemisphere. A campaign unofficially spearheaded by Chávez claims that the time may have come for a new type of regionalism without any United States or other "Western" membership or involvement. One of the justifications for such a development is that while the United States was distracted by Iraq, Washington had neither a pressing agenda nor the diplomatic vision regarding what its Latin American policy should be. A proposed Chávez initiative to establish a new institution known as the Bank of the South (Banco del Sur) is emblematic of the rapidly shifting terrain and the growing assumption that regional lending institutions should be more equitable and responsive to the needs of the countries of Latin America as juxtaposed to institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. With President Álvaro Uribe in Colombia asking to join, and with countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay already members, clearly the Caracas-sponsored institutions are resonating with nations throughout the region.

It is important to note that Latin America is perhaps one of the world's most cohesive regions. Many of the countries are bound by a similar language, culture, geography, religion, and history that can uniquely allow for cooperation. As compared to other regions of the world, the instances of interstate warfare in Latin America have been relatively few, while the number of trade agreements and local arrangements run high. These statistics reflect an environment of cooperation most notably transacted in such regional organizations as the O.A.S., to more specialized arrangements like the Rio Group, MERCOSUR, ALBA, CARICOM, CAN, etc.

Such trends explicitly to exclude the United States, and possibly Canada, from membership in certain organizations that focus on the needs most pertinent to Latin America should be encouraged. Regionalism has shown that it is an important intermediate step on the path toward internationalism; how can a disruptive and fragmented region possibly assert itself on the world stage? Therefore, while Chávez and other populist leaders begin to seek specialized arrangements and groups that will supposedly improve the immediate economic, political, and social situations of their countries, it is important for them not to turn their back on the O.A.S. as a failed institution, but rather to view it as a coherent, logical arrangement for all members of the Western Hemisphere to work out major regional issues. This recognition on the part of the member nations should not impede the flowering of the other groups previously mentioned.

Conceivably, there may be mutual benefits to the United States' future relationship with the O.A.S. and Latin America. Despite talk of falling empires and rising enemies, the United States will remain the hemisphere's sole superpower for many years to come. This is an important role that requires the United States to conduct itself with humility and moderation so that the nations of Latin America can restore their faith and trust in it. While no one is asking for the history of Pan-Americanism (both its strengths and weaknesses) to be forgotten or denied, continued cooperation on trade, immigration, drug control, security, and international terrorism is mutually beneficial to both North and South America. China and India have begun to reach out their increasingly acquisitive hands for natural resources throughout the Americas, so it will be important for the United States to remind Latin America that although it shares strategic relationships around the world, the old, intra-hemispheric connections that have existed for scores of years remain especially important. Note should be taken of the 2005 address by the Chinese vice president at the O.A.S. as highlighting the inevitable widening exploitation of Latin America by the natural resource-seeking nations of the world and the growing necessity for Washington to become cognizant of this fact.

Finally, the ultimate question seems to be whether the United States is capable of being a well-rounded ally for Latin America based on mutual respect while equally serving its national interest. One way in which this can be evaluated is the degree of self-respect Latin America is prepared to subscribe to. For example, the United States currently funds the O.A.S. at 60 percent of its general operating budget (not counting specialized projects such as the C.I.A.V. mission to Nicaragua (on Contra resettlement), in which the United States through USAID provided 96 percent of the funds). This leaves many wondering how the White House can financially and politically lower its stature while simultaneously covering the bulk of the cost for an organization that it barely makes time for. The other member nations of the O.A.S. must contribute their fair share if they wish to realign the organization as a forum with an agenda that works for all people in the hemisphere and not just preeminently for Washington.


The aforementioned report from the Woodrow Wilson Center observes that, invariably, the governments of the new left in Latin America can be expected to have a lasting effect on both domestic and international democratic institutions. Since the O.A.S. is the major regional forum where countries meet in a multilateral setting, it would be wise for the organization to heed the political shift now being witnessed and strive to accommodate it. The futile debate between the virtues of representative and participatory democracy detracts from some of the more sober problems facing the hemisphere, to be found in the areas of social justice and in trying to perfect the workings of democracy. Preservation of democracy in general, the administration of justice, and the maintenance of peace and human rights should be among the top priorities of the O.A.S.

Even if the number of Latin American regional institutions continues to grow exponentially, the O.A.S. can still justify its existence because of the need for a North-South multilateral forum where the United States, Canada, and the nations of Latin America can meet periodically on a formal basis to discuss both hemispheric and country-specific interests.

The O.A.S. will continue to monitor the region's human rights situation throughout the hemisphere through the laudable Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; it also has granted approximately 60 nations from all over the world with observer status; through the E.O.M.'s that it sponsors, it continues to provide guidance and coordination for relatively new, fragile democracies within the region. The effectiveness with which it has conducted itself, however, continues to show that the entire system is in need of reform. The diagnosis is in: the O.A.S. is certainly ill, but with the right combination of self-evaluation, review of the relationship between North and South America, and a dedication to supporting the amplification of democracy that would require it to revisit its mandate, could provide the O.A.S. with the right mixture to deal with the multiplicity of ailments from which it now suffers.

From the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.