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The OAS Meets - A New Latin America Emerges?
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the
Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 03.31
6 June 2003

COHA Research Memorandum:

The OAS Meets:

A New Latin America Emerges?

- Fallout from the bitter debate over war in Iraq can be expected to play a dominating role at the summit and reshape major relationships among OAS members-if not in the meeting hall, then in the corridors.

- The Kirchner administration makes its first major foreign policy debut, and can be expected to signal whether it plans to follow a predominantly pro-Mercosur or pro-FTAA agenda.

-. The issue of Cuba returns to the agenda and is sure to further divide the assembly.

- Look at the role of Brazil, the region's new grand diva.

On June 8, foreign ministers of the thirty-five members of the Organization of American States will descend upon Santiago, Chile for the annual meeting of that body's General Assembly, a gathering at which delicate diplomacy aimed at patching up, or at least submerging, the disagreements that have divided the hemisphere over the past year can be expected to overshadow the official agenda item of "good governance." Just as the recent G8 summit in France was more a diplomatic pageant than a productive discussion about the state of the world economy, the significance of this OAS meeting will lie not in any concrete product or declaration expected to emerge, but rather in the web of evolving interhemispheric relations showcased there-relations that have been badly fractured of late by issues as diverse as the war on Iraq, the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the crackdown on dissidents in Cuba. Equally important, this meeting marks the OAS debut of the administrations of Presidents Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva of Brazil and Néstor Kirchner of Argentina. Thus it can be expected to help set the tone of relations between a growing political grouping of center-left South American leaders led by Lula, with a strong orientation towards multilateralism and progressive social policy, and the unilateralist, free-trading Bush administration, as represented in Santiago by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The OAS Post-Iraq: Tentative Rapprochement?

Clearly, the most sensitive issue being faced by the OAS member states is the same one that dominated the G-8 summit: the aftermath of the unilateral American invasion of Iraq, which was at the time staunchly opposed by many OAS members and universally rejected in public opinion polls throughout the region, including Canada. Diplomatically, U.S. policy was challenged in the UN Security Council by the two Latin American delegations there, Chile and Mexico. However, now that the Bush administration has been somewhat appeased by the sacking of Chile's UN ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdés, who vocally opposed the war, Santiago can expect far more cordiality upon the appearance of the somewhat tarnished Powell in Chile than President Chirac recently received from Bush when the two met in Evián.

For its part, the Lagos administration has made it extremely clear that it wishes to bury any trace of recent disagreements with Washington as soon as possible, almost groveling as it insisted repeatedly that Powell would be most welcome at the OAS gathering-in spite of his probable finagling with intelligence data to justify his charge at the UN that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the Chilean paper El Mercurio went so far as to declare that he would be the "star" of the event; other Chilean diplomatic sources cited in the same conservative paper indicated that Powell's visit to Santiago had been undertaken precisely in order to smooth things over (limar esperezas) following the Iraq fracas.

At the same time, it is highly doubtful that American relations with Mexico, the other Security Council dissident, will be mended quite as rapidly. In the case of Chile, there were economic incentives for the government to humble itself and make amends: namely, the Lagos administration's desire to see the US-Chile free trade agreement, which had already been concluded and initialed by President Bush, sent to Congress for its approval and ratification. In contrast, Mexico and the United States have engaged in a series of trade skirmishes lately over agricultural exports under NAFTA, disputes which have grown steadily more acrimonious and show no signs of being close to resolution. There is also a heavy load of lingering ill-will over the failure to conclude an immigration agreement that would regularize the status of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. and facilitate the issuing of tens of thousands of new visas under a revised "guest worker" program. In general, a malaise of resentment prevails among Mexican opinion makers over the Bush administration's complete (if benign) neglect of Mexican-American relations since September 11, and particularly since the UN votes on Iraq.

All of these unresolved issues make it unlikely that relations in Santiago between Powell and his Mexican counterpart, Foreign Minister Luiz Ernesto Derbez will be particularly warm. This more pessimistic view was underscored by remarks made in comments by Luigi Einaudi, former American diplomat and now assistant secretary-general of the OAS. He suggested that Latin American governments had underestimated the extent to which they had harmed their standing in Washington by opposing the war, and that in fact "it was not possible in Santiago or Mexico City to realize the degree of disappointment of President George Bush" at the perfidy of his hemispheric compatriots.

Argentina and Brazil: New Administrations Make a Hemispheric Debut

Not only will the atmosphere of this summit be one of heightened tensions as a result of the Iraq crisis, there is also a certain air of expectancy as Foreign Ministers Celso Amorim of Brazil and Rafael Bielsa of Argentina make their OAS debuts as the representatives of the newly elected administrations of Presidents da Silva and Kirchner, respectively. While Amorim can be expected to re-articulate the same regionalist and pro-Mercosur agenda that the Lula administration has aggressively promoted over the last six months, Bielsa will be under singular scrutiny; this is one of his first opportunities to articulate the new Argentine administration's foreign policy in a highly visible forum, with the two hemispheric heavyweights, Brazil and the United States, likely aggressively courting him in an effort to line up a valuable ally for their respective causes.

On the one hand, Brasília is hoping for the support of Buenos Aires in its project of regional integration, which entails strengthening and expanding Mercosur and postponing further FTAA negotiations until a united South American position can be reached that will call for U.S. concessions on crucial issues such as agricultural subsidies. Washington, on the other hand, would like to enlist Argentina as a FTAA supporter, a stance that would require Buenos Aires to deprioritize Mercosur, at least in the immediate future. Thus far, the Kirchner administration has made tantalizing promises to both sides. While campaigning, Kirchner declared Argentina's strategic alliance with Brazil to be his main foreign policy priority, and Bielsa has already met with his counterpart Amorim to discuss Mercosur, trade issues and the desired expansion of the UN Security Council, which might make another seat for Latin America available. A date for a meeting between Lula and Kirchner is to be finalized within the next fifteen days. At the same time, Foreign Minister Bielsa assured Powell in a personal conversation that "our work of subregional integration far from excludes continental integration, which we hope to construct on a realistic and harmonious footing . . .[taking] into account the diversity and so the needs of each country."

While until now the Kirchner administration has been able to please everyone, the upcoming summit may well mark the end of its honeymoon period of foreign policy neutrality. When Bielsa meets Powell in Santiago on June 8, and especially after the latter goes on to Buenos Aires to meet President Kirchner in person on June 10, the latter's administration will be forced to tilt its hand, either making commitments to Washington that Brasília will find extremely unpalatable or staking out a more reserved position vis-à-vis the U.S. and committing itself to a regionalist, pro-Brazil agenda. The choice will have momentous repercussions for both Argentina and Latin America as a whole.

Cuba: The Ripple Effects of Repression

Competing with these complex maneuverings will be the recent crackdown in Cuba, where more than seventy-five dissidents were arrested and imprisoned in March and April, and the failure of earlier attempts to craft any hemispheric initiative to condemn these events. Following the arrests, the ambassadors of Canada, Chile and Uruguay presented a declaration to the Permanent Council of the OAS (composed of the ambassadors of all the member states) that expressed "their deep concern for the grave deterioration of the human rights situation in Cuba . . . as evidenced by the arrest and severe sentences for more than seventy-five Cuban citizens who had participated in peaceful political activities." The declaration was supported by the United States, Argentina, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and most of Central America, but opposed by Brazil, Venezuela and the fifteen members of Caricom; Mexico and Guatemala expressed sympathy for the aims of the resolution but maintained that the Permanent Council was not an appropriate forum in which to address this question because Cuba had no opportunity to defend itself.

Ultimately, the declaration received the support of only sixteen OAS members, and its sponsors were forced to withdraw it on May 20. They declared their intention of submitting it as a pronouncement of the group to the Assembly, though it cannot be considered an official document. Despite the deadlock, further debate on the subject can certainly be expected, and however much Secretary Powell and the Bush administration may wish for the OAS to unite in denouncing recent events in Cuba-which in large measure, they had helped to provoke by instructing U.S. diplomatic personnel in Havana to supply and closely liaise with the dissidents-the adoption of a joint OAS position on the subject is highly unlikely. Brazil, Mexico (the only Latin American country to maintain continuous relations with Cuba) and especially Venezuela will not readily abandon their defense of Cuba in deference to Washington's wishes.

This new wave of diplomatic maneuvering over Cuba is another reminder of the persistent divisiveness of this issue in hemispheric relations. Recently, it has seemed possible that Castro's long isolation, vigilantly enforced from Washington, may be significantly easing up with the emergence of Chávez, Lula and even Kirchner (at whose inauguration Castro was enthusiastically cheered) as supporters of a policy of relaxation toward Havana; the dynamics of the debate over Cuba at the OAS meeting will be crucial in revealing the nature and strength of this possible nascent pro-Castro coalition.

Finally, yet another matter of great import as the OAS assembly unfolds will be the comparison of the Santiago meeting with that of the recently concluded Rio Group in Lima. More and more, Latin American pundits are looking upon the all-Latin Rio nations as forming the basis of a new regional grouping in which the U.S. and Canada will have only observer status, as is the case with the former metropole nations in the Organization of African Unity, and the OAS meeting will be closely looked to as a source of further evidence for or against this theory.

Momentous events over the past six months both inside and outside the hemisphere have engendered a situation in which relations among American states are both particularly tense and remarkably fluid. While recent debates over Iraq and Cuba have provided hints at the foreign policy positions of major Latin American players, much is still to be determined about the emerging contours of hemispheric relations. The upcoming OAS summit should be closely watched as positions are staked out and sides chosen in the explosive debates to come over democratization, multilateralism and trade. Indeed, there is a strong possibility that the OAS will be more fundamentally divided at this meeting than ever before, split between Washington's more compliant free trading clients and an emerging Latin American bloc willing and able to push a very different agenda.

This analysis was prepared by Jessica Leight, research associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued 6 June 2003

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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