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Changing Guard at Organization of American States

Changing of the Guard at the Organization of American States


• Selected at last June’s meeting by the Organization of American States (OAS) to replace outgoing Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez Echeverria assumed his new post today at a special meeting of the OAS’s Permanent Council in Washington.

• The ongoing crises in Haiti and Venezuela, and the lack of an institutional OAS role in both disputes, have demonstrated that the hemisphere’s political forum is an ineffective and aging mammoth that, without strong leadership, may soon be utterly useless.

• The incoming Secretary General’s major tasks will be to rejuvenate the OAS’s diminishing role in hemispheric affairs and reverse the steady loss of its prestige and operational jurisdiction to the United Nations.

• While it will not be difficult for Rodriguez to improve upon Gaviria’s egomaniacal performance, his record as president of Costa Rica is steeped in mediocrity and plagued by a general lack of seriousness and, thus, leaves little hope that his performance as Secretary General of the OAS will be any more promising.

After ten years as the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), two-time Secretary General and former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria will step down from his post today and former Costa Rican president Miguel Angel Rodriguez Echevarria will become his successor. This transition began at the 34th regular session of the OAS General Assembly, which took place last June in Quito, Ecuador. Unfortunately, neither the organization’s Quito meeting nor the appointment of its new leader is likely to reverse the organization’s growing irrelevancy that that it so aptly demonstrated with its impotence in addressing the de facto ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti.

Organization of American States in Mid-Life Crisis
The Organization of American States (OAS) was established in 1948 with the mandate to promote hemispheric unity. This idea can be traced back as far as 1826, when the Liberator Simon Bolivar proposed the creation of a league of Latin American states. Regrettably, the concept never prospered, due to the member states’ reluctance to allocate to the organization the supranational powers needed to intervene in their domestic affairs. Under its current charter, the OAS may not intervene in the internal matters of a member state without prior authorization from the government of the country in question. Furthermore, the OAS has often been viewed less as an intergovernmental body than as Washington’s hemispheric puppet with the White House, located just blocks away, pulling the strings.

With the clear exception of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when Havana’s membership in the organization was suspended and its status changed from active participant to observer, the OAS has almost always abstained from criticizing its members, particularly the United States. The recent removal of democratically elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide highlighted the OAS’ apparent irrelevancy, notwithstanding a spate of resolutions meant to make it germane in battling against extra-constitutional changes of government. Throughout the entire explosive process, the organization did little more than condemn the violence that engulfed the Caribbean state. It should be noted that the OAS Secretary General’s special representative to Haiti at the time, Canadian Ambassador David Lee, resigned from his post on May 3 citing “major changes” in the conditions of the OAS mission to Haiti.

Gaviria as Secretary General
During the First Summit of the Americas in Miami in December 1994, Gaviria stated that the “new goals” of the organization were to promote democracy, sustainable development and economic integration. However, the organization made little or no progress in most of these areas during the course of his tenure. Moreover, Gaviria’s assistant secretaries, first Christopher R. Thomas of Trinidad and Tobago from 1990-2000 and currently Luigi R. Einaudi of the U.S., have not managed either to noticeably halt the erosion of the institution’s authority after their more than a decade in office. Numerous major hemispheric incidents, which should have caught the OAS’ attention, were essentially ignored or ill served by the organization during Gaviria’s long tenure. In typical OAS fashion, he steadfastly followed Washington’s political line of the day, attempting to justify the organization’s lack of vigor in reacting to several regional crises.

The 1995 Peru-Ecuador border dispute, which nearly culminated in war between the two Andean nations; the never-ending civil war in Colombia; the dispute in Chiapas, Mexico led by the now famous sub-comandante Marcos; the recent burgeoning of anti-democratic incidents in Haiti, and the present tension over a gas pipeline to be constructed between Bolivia and Peru rather than Chile are all examples of the OAS’ failure to play a premier role in resolving important issues affecting the Americas. Additionally, the OAS was unable to prevent the disintegration of numerous presidential administrations in Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and most recently Haiti. Ironically, one of the few times in recent years that OAS member governments managed to take a decisive stand did not involve the OAS at all. Instead, Latin American leaders assembled at the 2002 Rio Group sixteenth annual meeting in Costa Rica, at the time of a U.S.-supported coup in Venezuela, demanded the reinstatement of the deposed Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Gaviria’s Blunders: Incompetence or a Crowded Personal Agenda?
Although clamorously touted at the time for the impact they would have, both the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the Santiago “Representative Democracy” resolution (commonly known as Resolution 1080) have rarely been applied, in spite the growing challenges many of the hemisphere’s constitutionally-elected governments now face. The Charter itself represents hope for the people of the Americas; in his September 22, 2002 op-ed in the Washington Times, Gaviria explained that the Charter champions “respect for human rights and public liberties, the separation and independence of powers, transparency and accountability, a pluralistic party system and meaningful citizen participation. It means access to information, freedom of expression, effective checks and balances, and the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law. Democracy goes hand in hand with social justice and human development.” Unfortunately, implementation was an art form that Gaviria never quite managed to perfect and, consequently, the promises of his Democratic Charter’s never materialized.

Gaviria’s tenure has been extremely controversial from the beginning. Washington first installed Gaviria in a last-minute effort to block the selection of then Costa Rican foreign minister, Bernd Niehaus. But soon after Washington diplomacy steam-rolled him into office, Gaviria immediately entered into a dispute with the OAS’ staff association when he replaced a number of the organization’s experts—including Gloria Loyola Black, one of the OAS’ most talented senior officials and a person of impeccable credentials—with a mixed bag of Bogotá cronies. Among Gaviria’s other administrative blunders can be found the growth of the organization’s bureaucracy (after he previously promised to cut it) and unchecked spending, much of it on his elegant life style. In fact, Gaviria significantly expanded his personal staff and upgraded his living accomendations so often that he nearly resembled a Middle Eastern pasha with his personal servitors and grandious resisdences. The swelling payroll and excessive expenditures only served to exacerbate an already severe institutional deficit situation.

In 1995, the Secretary General created the Trade Unit to stimulate the interests of OAS member states in signing on to the Washington-endorsed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). That same year, Gaviria replaced the OAS’ Working Group and the Special Committee on Security with the new Committee on Hemispheric Security to address topics such as cyber defense and confidence building measures. While the creation of these instruments have been somewhat relevant to the interests of the hemisphere, Gaviria has left almost untouched the Inter-American Defense Board which conceivably he could have awakened from its decades of senescence to assume a greater role in the region’s ever-important security matters. Unfortunately, the untouched board remained a military moose club, a sanctuary of redundant officers who are shipped off to Washington where they can be kept from staging coups or hatching corruption schemes in their home countries.

Compared to his innumerable failures, Gaviria’s positive accomplishments are relatively few. In terms of his achievements, he was a player in the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed in September 2001 in Lima, Peru. And since 2002, Gaviria has attempted to act as a third-party mediator in Venezuela between Chavez’ government and the country’s opposition parties. During the recent August 15th referendum that determined the fate of Chavez’ presidency, Gaviria was in Caracas, along with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, to supervise the voting process. Much to the chagrin of Chavez’s opposition, Gaviria displayed some grit in insisting that Chavez won a legitimate victory in defeating the recall resolution in what was, without question, one of the major accomplishments of his tenure.

Changing of the Guard
Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría served as president of Costa Rica from 1998 to 2002. Affiliated with the conservative Social-Christian political party, which has pushed for the privatization of state-owned enterprises, Rodriguez’ presidency produced mixed results. With regards to the economy, he signed bilateral free-trade treaties with Canada, Mexico and Chile in preparation for the FTAA’s conclusion in 2006. Nevertheless, he ultimately lost control of his country’s inflation rate and was unable to gain approval from the Costa Rican legislature for some of his privatization schemes. His overall failure to improve the lives of many poor Costa Ricans, in spite of the country’s robust economy, is underscored by the existing 20 percent poverty rate in this nation of four million. In 2000, Rodriguez’ privatization policies prompted three weeks of strikes by peasants, workers, and students who objected to the sale of the state-owned telecommunications and electricity company, the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE). His few economic achievements, coupled with his poor handling of natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1999, allowed the opposition party, the Partido de Liberacion Nacional (PLN), to regain power in 2002.

During the past year, a number of names were proposed as candidates for Secretary General, including the former Salvadorian president Francisco Flores; Valentin Paniagua, the president of Peru’s 2000-2001 transition government; Jose Miguel Insulza, current Chilean secretary of the interior, and Eduardo Stein Barillas, former chancellor of Guatemala. However, the former Costa Rican president ultimately survived as the sole candidate and thus was easily able to secure the position as OAS Secretary General. Indeed, before the recent summit in Ecuador, Rodriguez had already been assured 32 of the OAS’ 34 possible votes, well above the 18 required to win.

Mr. Rodriguez Goes to Washington
Two interesting aspects surround Rodriguez’s recent selection. First, Venezuela’s President Chavez has been an ardent supporter of Rodriguez’ bid to become the next Secretary General, reiterating his support for his colleague in a meeting with Rodriguez in Caracas last May. Chavez’s support is likely the result of Rodriguez’s history of neutrality in the domestic affairs of the OAS’ member states. The sole exception to his policy of neutrality occurred at the 2002 meeting of the Rio Group held in San Jose, Costa Rica. There, he and the other attending heads of state signed a communiqué condemning a coup against Chavez, which had occurred while the Rio Group was in session.

Second, the Chilean government failed in its efforts to promote Jose Insulza as the next Secretary General of the OAS. Santiago has maintained its aspirations to be South America’s next regional leader following Argentina’s economic collapse in 2000, and a Chilean official elected to the OAS post would have been a great diplomatic achievement. Despite its intimate relations with Santiago, however, Washington does not view Chile as ready to become its “second in command” in the Americas, and President Bush was thus quick to support Rodriguez’ nomination. The White House’s rebuff was a signal to Santiago that it must work overtime to conform to U.S. economic and political modalities before it aspires to be Washington’s Latin American primus inter pares.

Your Agenda Mr. Secretary General
In addition to not undertaking meaningful diplomatic action during Haiti’s recent domestic crisis, the OAS also failed to set a precedent of regional cooperation by demonstrating its inability to organize an inter-American peacekeeping force designated to address the island’s problems. Fortunately for Haiti, the United Nations succeeded where the OAS chose not to and created the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). In his above mentioned Washington Times op-ed, Gaviria concluded by saying, “The Democratic Charter is also helping to guide OAS actions in Haiti, where we have undertaken a series of efforts to help end the political impasse and strengthen democracy.” However, the record shows Gaviria’s rhetoric to be pure nonsense, as the OAS did almost nothing to bolster democratic rule in Haiti. It is now the responsibility of Rodriguez to pick up Gaviria’s dropped ball and recommit the OAS to the plight of the Haitian people.

Another issue that Rodriguez must address is the rising tension between major regional players that are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the OAS’ lack of effectiveness. Venezuela’s Chavez – who often argues that OAS leaders are too concerned with pleasing Washington – was certainly not amused by Gaviria’s recent officious attempts to mediate an agreement between Chavez and his opposition, knowing that the opposition would refuse any form of cooperation with the Venezuelan leader. Colombia’s government is also weary of the OAS, which supported the country’s U’wa tribe in its efforts to stall California-based Occidental Petroleum in its attempt to drill for oil in the “Samore block” (the U’wa’s homeland) near the Venezuelan border.

As the next leader of the OAS, Rodriguez must utilize every opportunity to remold the organization as an important player within the region. Venezuela’s 2006 presidential elections will present an excellent opportunity for the OAS to observe and monitor electoral processes in what is likely to be a hotly contested race that may well influence the future of democracy in that country. Additionally, Rodriguez should also immediately address the largely ignored border dispute between Guatemala and Belize, as both nations have pleaded to the OAS to mediate a resolution to this protracted disagreement.

Rodriguez’s OAS and the Future
While his lackluster term as president of Costa Rica inspires little confidence in his leadership abilities, Rodriguez must now prove himself to be a capable leader. The new secretary general must employ diplomatic tact and exercise caution when dealing with issues involving other Central American nations. Historical conflicts between these states for regional supremacy have been a fixture of the area’s diplomacy, which could hinder the effectiveness of a Rodriguez-led OAS. Euro-centric Costa Rican foreign policy has traditionally distanced the country from its other more “Latin” immediate neighbors and eschewed regional integration for neutral isolation. Characteristic of this isolationism is San Jose’s continuous refusal to join the Central American Parliament— (Parlamento Centro-Americano or Parlacen) an advisory and discussion forum created by the Contadora Group, whose members include all other Central American states and the Dominican Republic. Thus, at least in Washington’s eye, Rodriguez’ election (and Bush’s support of it) could prove to be a divisive factor.

However, regional tension is not limited to Central and South American states. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) voted in early May to turn to the OAS for an independent investigation into the ouster of Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide after the United Nations rejected such a proposal. Indeed, the governments of several CARICOM members simply did not trust the Security Council to carry out an unbiased under the heavy influence of both the U.S. and France on that body. Consequently, when OAS members (supported by CARICOM) invoked article 20 of the new Inter American Democratic Charter, which calls for “collective assessment” (in other words, an investigation) in “the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state,” and called for an inquiry into Aristide’s ouster, the U.S. and current Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue opposed this resolution (AG/RES 2058 XXXIV-0/04).

It is too soon to tell if Rodriguez is the right man to lead the OAS into the new century. Unfortunately, his less than flattering record as president of Costa Rica portrays a leader prone to avoid confrontation through disengagement. By doing so, Rodriguez may end up following in his predecessor’s footsteps and fail to address many of the America’s major social, economic and political problems. Should this be true, Rodriguez’s inauguration today will surely be a step back for the Organization of American States, as it all but guarantees at least five more years of misdirection for a lost hemispheric actor searching for a role to play.

This analysis was prepared by Alex Sanchez, COHA Research Fellow.

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