Le Monde diplomatique
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Founded in 1948 during the standoff between the US and the USSR, the Organisation of American States (OAS) is one of the instruments through which Washington projects geopolitical power over Latin America and the Caribbean states, which one by one joined the organisation as they won independence between 1960 and 1980. Canada only joined the OAS in 1990 and is mostly happy with putting forward a moderate version of the White House line.
If, like Fidel Castro, the left sees the OAS as ‘the ministry of United States colonies’ (1), elites treat it as something approaching the sacred. A Latin American or Caribbean ambassador at the OAS is one of the most important diplomats in his country. As to the secretary general, he weighs heavy in the member states’ political debates, apart from in the United States where he is as unknown as the organisation itself, even among political elites.
If, like Fidel Castro, the left sees the OAS as ‘the ministry of United States colonies’, elites treat it as something approaching the sacred.
Yet it is in an imposing marble building once given to the Pan-American Union (an ancestor of the OAS) by the great steel baron Andrew Carnegie and located several hundreds of metres from the White House that the permanent council of the OAS is based. At the end of the 1940s, the United States redrew the global multilateral system: the United Nations therefore headquartered itself in New York, the OAS in Washington. The United States wished to suggest a diffuse hegemony, but so diffuse as to abandon the headquarters to a peripheral country.
‘Don’t be stupid’
The OAS first played a secondary role, on the sidelines of security instruments true and blue, such as the Inter-American Defence Board (IADB) created in 1942, and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (also known as the Rio Treaty) of 1947. The latter was a message to the Soviet Union: it established that any attack against a state on the continent would be considered an attack against all signatory countries.
Little by little, nevertheless, the focus became the deployment of ‘inter-American multilateralism’. The time had come to show the world the consensus between Washington and Latin American elites in their common rejection of communism. Cuba was expelled from the OAS in 1962 using a resolution that specified that ‘the adherence by any member (…) to Marxism-Leninism is incompatible with the inter-American system’ (2). On the other hand, no Latin American military dictatorship was ever distanced from the organisation, despite the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)’s documentation of atrocities committed by several governments in the 1970s.
Even so, there have been times that Latin American and Caribbean countries have made up a majority of the permanent council and risen up against the United States’ positions — such as during maritime conflicts between the United States and Peru, or Ecuador at the end of the 1960s, during the Falklands war in 1982 or during the US invasion of Panama in 1989-1990. But even in these circumstances, the United States ignored the resolutions of the member states and acted unilaterally.
The end of the cold war plunged the OAS into existential crisis. The wave of democratisation in the 1980s freed the organisation from the obligation, imposed by US tutelage, to keep silent regarding dictatorships. As the Soviet bloc crumbled, the OAS devoted itself to defending the norms and values of liberal democracy. It reinvented itself to concentrate, among other things, on observing electoral processes to ensure their credibility. This mission, which it embarked upon in Costa Rica in 1962, became one of the pillars of the new institution. But this roadmap was not enough to place the OAS centre stage. At the time, Washington was mostly preoccupied with imposing its consensus and the resultant structural adjustment programmes. In this area, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) monopolised Latin Americans’ attention.
Nor was OAS able to establish itself as the arbiter of conflicts between countries in the region, notably concerning leftover postcolonial border rivalries. The OAS’s voice did not count during the resolution of the Beagle conflict between Chile and Argentina in 1984, or during the peace deal signed between Ecuador and Peru in 1998.
With the 2000s and the rise to power of the left in several Latin American countries, the US lost some of its grip on the inter-American system. In 2005, for the first time in the history of the organisation, a secretary general was elected, then re-elected in 2010, without Washington’s support. In 2009, a resolution from the general assembly of the ministry of foreign affairs declared Cuba’s exclusion null and void. Havana acknowledged the gesture, but refused to return to the organisation.
As the Soviet bloc crumbled, the OAS devoted itself to defending the norms and values of liberal democracy.
The same year, the coup against Honduran president of Manuel Zelaya was punished by the country’s suspension from the OAS — a first. Only an agreement ensuring Zalaya’s return to Tegucigalpa in 2011 allowed for Honduras to rejoin into the organisation. The progressive governments of Latin America made the most of their relative cohesion and freed themselves from certain aspects of the inter-American system. After Mexico denounced the Rio Treaty in 2001, it was followed by Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador.
Keen to prevent the OAS remaining a tool of the United States in its struggle against anti-imperialist governments, the left in the region chose to cooperate with the Caribbean. In particular Venezuela lent its support by selling the Caribbean states cheap oil when prices flared up. Most of the votes of the fourteen countries in the Caribbean Community (Caricom) belonging to the OEA helped to counter attacks from the United States against Venezuela and the left-wing governments of Latin America.
But, despite these successes, suspicion of the OAS has never disappeared among Latin American progressives, who know that the shifts in the balance of power at the heart of the permanent council did cannot fundamentally change the organisation’s structure and subservience to Washington. Mostly funded by the United States, from which it retains up to 60% of its yearly budget — and the entire budget of some of its branches — the OAS’s bureaucrats are predominantly Latin American, though they live in Washington and show staunch loyalty toward the institution—which, for its part, rewards its employees by endowing them with professional prestige.
Left-wing governments therefore decided to encourage a new form of regionalism. This exceptional moment led to the founding of the Union of South American States (Unasur), in 2008. Unasur was a risky bet. It was based on cooperation along political, economic, and defence lines, among others, and its objectives went beyond those of other South American cooperation mechanisms, showing more ambition than the OAS’s mandate, especially — but not only — in its economic and developmental dimensions. Notably, Unasur intervened in interior political crises in 2008 in Bolivia, in 2010 in Ecuador, then in 2012 in Paraguay, as well as in international conflicts like that between Venezuela and Colombia in 2010. For its part, the OAS was excluded from all these mediations and interventions.
Under the leadership of Almagro, the OAS has once again become synonymous with the ‘Monroe Doctrine’.
Then came the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac), ie the countries of the Western hemisphere including Cuba and excluding the United States and Canada. This forum, albeit less institutionalised than Unasur and lacking a constitutive treaty, was nevertheless dedicated to political cooperation between the region’s states, and to international discussions. Indeed, several Celac meetings took place — with the European Union, Celac-China, Celac-Russia, Celac-India, and so on.
In 2015, Luís Almagro, who was close to the Uruguayan president José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, a figure of the Latin American left, was elected to the role of secretary general of the OAS. Nominated by Mujica and supported by the region’s left-wing governments, the former Uruguayan foreign minister promised to pursue the path of independence set out by his predecessor José Miguel Insulza. But the progressive wave was running out of momentum. And Almagro adapted: he swiftly recast himself as the games master of a consolidating right and orchestrated the OAS’s return under the auspices of a United States soon to be led by a certain Donald Trump.
Amalgro quickly became interested in Venezuela. He provided military support to the opposition and was against every attempt at negotiation. When the former president of the Spanish government José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero argued for a negotiated political solution in Venezuela, Almagro retorted, ‘Don’t be stupid’ (3). Almagro — like Washington — had decided that the only possible solution involved regime change. He praised the US’s coercive economic measures. As Donald Trump’s administration explained that ‘all options were on the table’, suggesting the possibility of a military option, Almagro backed the threat and brandished the argument of a humanitarian intervention, which caused concern even among of the Latin American governments of the Lima group, despite it being an alliance built with the aim of isolating Nicolás Maduro’s government.
Nevertheless the secretary general’s enthusiasm for the defence of ‘democracy’ does not extend all the way to Brazil. The impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff did not move him any more than the imprisonment, without evidence, of former president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, which removed him from the 2018 presidential campaign. The human rights violations committed by Jovenel Moïse’s government in Haïti, during the 2018-19 protests, did not evince a stronger reaction. When Almagro visited Ecuador at the end of October 2019, after the country’s largest protests in modern history and a wave of unprecedented repression, he congratulated president Lenín Moreno on the way he had managed the crisis, without mentioning the fact his repression had resulted in several deaths. In Almagro’s eyes, Chilean president Sebastián Piñera — himself the architect of violent repression against social movements — ‘efficiently defended public order, all the while taking special measures to guarantee human rights’ (4). As to Colombia, Almagro said nothing of the daily disappearances of trade unionists or the government’s abandonment of the peace process: he expressed concern about the violence of protesters who rejected the neoliberal policies of president Iván Duque.
Return to the 1950s
It was in Bolivia that Almagro performed his masterstroke. In October 2019, a general election was held. The incumbent president Evo Morales won the election in the first round, with 47.08% of the votes, against his main rival Carlos Mesa, who was behind by more than 10% of votes (36.51%). According to the Bolivian constitution, when a candidate wins more than 40% of votes in the first round with a majority of at least 10% over the candidate that comes second, they are elected in the first round. But the OAS’s electoral observation mission planted uncertainty right from the announcement of the first results, by mentioning an ‘explicable change in trend’ (5) in the vote count. As several statistical studies have since demonstrated, this ‘change in trend’ was in fact the result of the late count of several geographical regions favourable to Morales.
Still the mainstream media cried fraud; the opposition became radicalised; Morales went into exile under threat from the army. The OAS never managed to prove its accusations of fraud, as Washington’s Center of Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) (6), among others, revealed. Several weeks after these events, Jeanine Añez’s de facto government announced its support for the re-election of Almagro, a man who, according to the new minister of foreign affairs Karen Longarec, ‘played a fundamental role in the defence of democracy in the region’ (7).
The re-election of Almagro marks the unequivocal return to an OAS favourable to the United States. If the organisation was seeking to reinvent itself and win legitimacy as a defender of democracy, its bet failed. Under the leadership of Almagro, the OAS has once again become synonymous with the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ — a reference to president James Monroe at the beginning of the 19th century, according to whom Latin America constituted a ‘backyard’ where the United States would tolerate no foreign interference. This is the principle that US secretary of state Mike Pompeo celebrated, in January 2020, as ‘a return to the spirit of the OAS in the 1950s and 1960s’ (8).
(1) Speech on 4 February 1962.
(2) Sixth resolution of the eighth consultation meeting of the foreign ministers of the OAS, in Punta del Este (Uruguay), 22-31 January, 1962.
(3) EFE, Washington, DC, 21 September 2018.
(4) EFE, Santiago du Chili, 9 January 2020
(6) Jake Johnston and David Rosnick, ‘Observing the observers : The OAS in the 2019 Bolivian elections’, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, DC, 10 March 2020.
(7) Alejandra Arredondo, ‘Bolivia apoya reelección de Almagro en la OEA’, VOA Noticias, 23 January 2020.
(8) Speech to the permanent council of the OEA, 17 January 2020.