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OAS Secretary-General Candidates Jockey for Votes

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Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 05.09

Word Count: 1650

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

A Game of Hemispheric Chess:
OAS Secretary-General Candidates Jockey for Votes

• The Secretary-General seat of the Organization of American States (OAS) is still up for grabs, but three candidates have appeared as the most likely to succeed former and now disgraced Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodríguez as OAS Secretary-General: Francisco Flores of El Salvador; Luis Ernesto Derbez of Mexico; and José Miguel Insulza of Chile.

• Insulza has garnered much support, but his candidacy may be opposed by Washington for his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war.

• The candidacy of Derbez remains a long shot because he lacks the support of key member nations as well as much of Mexico’s media.

• With very few successes in its 60 year history, the fate of the OAS still remains problematic. The next leader has a major task ahead of him in reforming the organization, if that is possible.

• The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), over the past several months, has published a number of press memoranda on the future of the OAS, including interviews with high-ranking officials from a number of concerned nations.

There is still no word as to the date when the next Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS) will be chosen. Four months after the resignation of the disgraced former Costa Rica President Miguel Angel Rodriguez from his OAS post, three candidates have emerged as his possible successor: former President of El Salvador, Francisco Flores; former Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luis Ernesto Derbez and current Chilean Minister of the Interior, José Miguel Insulza. According to OAS by-laws, any OAS member state can call for an extraordinary assembly to elect a new Secretary-General at any time. Otherwise, a new OAS head will be chosen at the regional organization’s next regular assembly, slated for June in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Insulza Gains Momentum

Interestingly, the race to obtain the necessary majority vote to win the OAS position (18 out of the 34 OAS members) has fomented a flurry of diplomatic activity by nations putting forward candidates to other member-states normally consigned to the diplomatic periphery. The support of tiny island nations such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines (population 117,000) or Barbados (population 280,000) are now vital to the governments of Chile, Mexico and El Salvador; and diplomatic sparks have begun to fly. Flores has said that Mexican President Vicente Fox “broke his word” by nominating Derbez instead of supporting the ex-Salvadorean president. Meanwhile, Insulza embarked on a three-day trip in early January to meet with delegates of the powerful 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) as well as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Insulza so far has managed to win the support of Argentina and Brazil. He will shortly arrive in Washington to woo the U.S. vote, if that is at all possible. In spite of the Bush administration’s goodwill toward Santiago due to President Ricardo Lagos’s many services to Washington, it is still smarting over Insulza’s harsh words for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the fact that the Interior Minister is a committed socialist. Unfortunately for the Chilean Lagos, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in addition to Canada, Belize and Bolivia, have pledged their support to Derbez.

Understanding a Mess

What is occurring in Mexico regarding Derbez’s nomination deserves careful analysis. Not long ago, the Mexican Foreign Minister hinted at his intention to run as the ruling National Action Party’s (PAN) candidate in the 2006 presidential elections. However, observers believe that his candidacy would not be well-received by other PAN leaders, including President Vicente Fox, who wants his protégé, current Minister of Interior Santiago Creel, to succeed him. Mexico originally had announced that it would support a Central American candidate, however it only recently decided to put forth one of its own. Most likely this was because of mounting opposition to Flores, who failed to achieve unanimous Central American support and was fast becoming an untenable candidate due to corruption rumors and a widely perceived sentiment that he was a lightweight.

By nominating his foreign minister, Fox was able to kill two birds with one stone: eliminating Derbez from the presidential race while taking credit for nominating a Mexican to be OAS Secretary-General. Unfortunately for Fox and Derbez, the Mexican media has been noticeably reluctant to support the latter in any way. For example, in an article by Leslie Gomez for Mexico’s La Crónica, on January 17 (“Derbez gives cement, scholarships and wire to lead the OAS”), the opening paragraph states that how, in spite of all of Derbez’s “gifts” to Caribbean nations, he has only been able to obtain the vote of St. Vincent. The article includes a not-so flattering comparison of Derbez’s tactics with the more cynical, if more effective ones of the former ruling Mexican party Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), which gave needy countries economic aid in explicit exchange for votes. Canada, on the other hand, seems to have a more roseate opinion of the Mexican Foreign Minister. In an exclusive interview with COHA, Canada’s ambassador to the OAS, Paul Durand, explained that his country supports Derbez’s nomination because of “his multilateral experience and also his senior government experience in trade and foreign affairs.”

While it had been rumored that Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu would be a last-minute candidate for the OAS’ leadership position, this does not seem to be the case. Juan Leon, Guatemala’s ambassador to the OAS, explained his nation’s position to COHA regarding what he described as “a political chess game.” According to León, “in principle, Guatemala is committed at the Central American level to supporting former President Flores, however, there has to be an in-depth analysis of all three candidates.” He went on to add, “Guatemala will place itself with the consensus of the majority, even though at heart it wants a Central American [for the OAS top post].” It is important to note that, although Salvadoran president Antonio Saca has proclaimed that Flores would be an ideal candidate to replace Rodríguez, Venezuelan officials have repeatedly refused to support his choice, claiming Flores has had too cozy a relationship with Washington while in office. Indeed, he was one of the few Latin American leaders who recognized the Caracas coup that briefly ousted the democratically-elected Hugo Chávez in April 2002.

A Brazilian diplomatic official also interviewed by COHA provided a particularly apt description of the process for selecting candidates to the OAS’ top post. The source observed “this [the selection by each nation of a candidate to the OAS] is essentially a political process,” and he went on to explain that Brazil decided to support Chile because “it came down to supporting a South-American candidate, since South America is Brazil’s area of immediate interest.” The source stressed the fact that Brazil would be just as happy if Derbez or Flores won the elections, but Brazil’s support for Chile in the early selection process was simply because the two nations are neighbors.

Doing Whatever it Takes to Get the Votes

As in any election, behind-the-scenes negotiations as well as public pronouncements are taking place with increasing frequency. Chile has announced that it will support Ambassador Albert Ramdin of Suriname for the position of OAS Assistant Secretary-General. Observers have wondered if Santiago did this because it believes in Ramdin’s qualifications or whether it is seeking a quid pro quo -- Chile’s support for Ramdin in exchange for Suriname’s support for Insulza. COHA attempted to contact the embassy of Suriname for comments on this matter without success. Not surprisingly, Bolivia chose not to support Insulza, given the historical tensions between Bolivia and Peru against Chile ever since the Pacific War of 1878. As a result of stepped-up bitterness between the two countries in recent years, there have been no diplomatic relations between La Paz and Santiago since 1978. Other OAS nations, such as Peru, Colombia and the rest of CARICOM, remain undecided. Given the fact that the members of this regional agency usually vote as a united bloc, it is quite a departure to see individual states giving their vote to several candidates.

As June approaches, there are still several unanswered questions about the OAS’ future: are any of these candidates capable of revitalizing the organization from its low state of affairs and its less than brilliant role in the hemisphere since its creation in 1948? Furthermore, are any of these candidates fully equipped to lead the OAS, so that the regional organization will be able to play a more positive role regarding issues like curbing corruption, espousing authentic democratization, encouraging social reforms, working for the demobilization of paramilitaries in Colombia and resolving serious current domestic tensions in Ecuador? It is true that the OAS Secretary-General does not make policy - other constituent parts of the hemispheric agency like its General Assembly, Permanent Council and the member states themselves must all play a greater role in making the organization more relevant. However, the OAS must have a Secretary-General who is capable, respected and possesses the genuine leadership skills necessary to unite its various parts for the common good, in a non-arrogant manner unlike recently retired Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria.

Regrettably, past Secretary-Generals, almost without exception, have largely failed in one respect or another, exemplifying that whoever wins the OAS Secretariat may have a cushy seat for five years, but most likely will do little to revitalize the organization or their reputation. The OAS can only function with the committed support of member states and with a genuinely capable and selfless leader at its head. One can only wait to see if this scenario has any prospect of being achieved, which has happened only rarely in the past.

COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez has written extensively on the Organization of American States (PR. 04.64, 04.92 and 04.96).

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

January 26, 2005

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) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email

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