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Reclaiming the OAS’s Future in the Americas

The Western Hemisphere

By Robert Valencia

The fourth episode of “Isla Presidencial,”a highly acclaimed online animated series across the Spanish-speaking world for its witty look at Spanish-Latin American politics, depicts a soccer game between left- and right-leaning Latin American presidents shipwrecked on an isolated island. As former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez vehemently argue over the game’s rules, former Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva acts as a mediator and calls for the referee they elected democratically to decide which of the presidents has played properly. At the 2:25mark,the video swiftly pans to a scarecrow-like dummy wearing a sweater that reads “OEA,” which stands for the Organization of American States in Spanish. As the wind blows, its head falls down.

Though just a political lampoon, the episode suggests the state of Latin American relations in the past couple of years, as well as the reality the Organization of American States faces when regional disputes arise. The OAS awakens sordid sentiments from its detractors because it has long been considered a political platform where Washington enforces its foreign policy in the region. Hugo Chávez, a staunch critic, has called OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza Insulsoa Spanish pun from the Secretary General’s last name that means “bland.”

In effect, many observers question OAS’s validity and authority over Latin American affairs. Case in point: the most recent diplomatic crisis between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over Calero Island, a parcel of land located in the San Juan River. Costa Rica, which doesn’t have an army, relies on international bodies to resolve such international disputes. Its representatives asked Nicaragua to move its troops out of the island by November 27. Laura Chinchilla, president of Costa Rica, brought her case to the OAS, claiming Nicaragua’s invasion posed a direct challenge to Costa Rica’s sovereignty. Secretary General Insulza explained in his report after visiting the zone that both sides agreed to bi-national talks, and dictated that neither country should “escalate the military and police presence near the disputed area.” Given the growing gravity of this situation, Insulza called for a meeting of the OAS leadership on December 7 to find a solution.

Insulza’s intervention was effectively ignored by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who replied with a threat to withdraw Nicaragua from the OAS. The Nicaraguan government argues that it has the “absolute right” to dredge the mouth of the San Juan River because Costa Rica has slashed a considerable amount of trees for agricultural purposes, leading to “the destruction of the river and the shift of its flow toward Costa Rica.” Nicaragua also added that its increasing military presence is merely an attempt to fight drug trafficking in the zone. What’s more, on November 19, Managua announced it will consider an appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague because it claims that the zone belongs to Nicaragua. Meanwhile, Costa Rica has considered taking its case to higher international bodies in case an agreement is not reached with the help of the OAS, warning that Nicaragua is damaging the ecosystem due to its construction project.

Ortega’s threat to remove Nicaragua from the OAS and the lack of consensus between the two sides demonstrates the organization’s shrinking clout when it comes to resolving Pan-American disputes. OAS’s organizational structure is said to be at the heart of its failures in handling these types of crises, particularly because it lacks the standing to make disputants comply with the organization’s resolutions, unlike the UN Security Council. In those cases where OAS has been successful in easing diplomatic tensions, it was the countries’ will that allowed the organization to insert itself into the problem. Otherwise the OAS would have been very cautious when it comes to encroaching on the nations’ sovereignty.

Moreover, the OAS’s leverage might even be jeopardized with the emergence of a new power player in regional and global affairs—Brazil. Certainly, in recent years, the South American juggernaut has exercised an increasing role in Latin American politics. Brazil has actively participated in the recovery of Haiti by taking a leading role within the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti. And it has helped broker stability in Honduras after the 2009 coup that ousted former President Manuel Zelaya—which, in fact, led to Honduras’ withdrawal from the OAS. Unlike the OAS, Brazil has managed to earn the respect of left and right-leaning countries without necessarily taking any sides.

On its own, Brazil has successfully embarked on infrastructure projects in Colombia and Venezuela—two countries with substantially divergent political viewpoints. Brazil has also opposed some Washington political and military initiatives in the region—such as the use of Colombian military bases for drug interdiction, the Cuban trade embargo, and the Honduras coup. Still, Brazil has strengthened defense cooperation with the United States while maintaining channels of communications over climate change and other international economic institutions, and has exponentially increased its trade with Mexico and Mercosur–the collective of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay founded in 1991.

Another gridlock moment for the OAS was the founding of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008. UNASUR’s “Declaration of Cusco” calls for a common agreement in politics and diplomacy, while accelerating the convergence among Mercosur, the Andean Community, and Chile by improving a common free-trade zone. Some experts like Peter Hakim from the Inter-American Dialogue agreethat a stronger, more institutionalized UNASUR “will likely restrict the role of the OAS and diminish U.S. influence in hemispheric affairs.” This was clearly reflected when the emergency summitin Buenos Aires that included all South American presidents, summoned after Ecuador’s police revolt last September, carried more authority than the OAS reportabout the uprising that almost overthrew President Rafael Correa. 

Some OAS supporters believe the criticisms of the organization are unfair and that past successes of its crisis management are not taken into consideration, while failures in breaking diplomatic stalemates are due less to its organizational shortcomings than to the reality that no Latin American country is interested in granting more power to the OAS.

This is where the future of the OAS becomes critical. The OAS will be able to change its organizational structure to enforce its resolutions only if member countries cede more autonomy to it by granting more validity to its actions. At the same time, the OAS itself must capitalize on such diplomatic successes as its decision to lift Cuba’s long suspension from the group. This action has become a hallmark of Washington’s own fading influence in the region and a firm commitment by the OAS to be more inclusive, regardless of any political repercussions. Nevertheless, the organization must also bear in mind that emerging powers like Brazil and other populist initiatives like Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” will have separate agendas, making a pan-regional integration more difficult than it is today.

The same OAS traces its rootsback to 1826 when the “American states decided to meet periodically and to forge a shared system of norms and institutions.” If all American states agree to retain this concept in the face of divergent domestic ideologies, the OAS may be on the threshold of a brighter future.

Robert Valencia is a research fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Photo from Flickr via Timothy Valentine.

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