I have two rules when it comes to the Organization of American States (OAS): never write about it and never be too optimistic about it—the former because few people really care about it and even fewer want to read about it and the latter because…well, history.
I’m about to break both of those rules now.
In his swearing-in speech this week, the new OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, made a number of very pointed references—which echoed the general consensus on the problems of the OAS today and problematic legacy of his predecessor, José Miguel Insulza.
The first of these was his repeated emphasis on the OAS’s role in defending human rights.
Were it not for the tireless work of the crown jewel of the inter-American system, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), though, that role would have deteriorated drastically over the past 10 years of Insulza’s term. According to former commissioners, the former Secretary General regularly intervened on behalf of OAS member states to complain and attempt to undercut the IACHR’s role and independence.
Later, when there was a so-called effort to “reform” the IACHR led by Ecuador, with assistance from Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, Insulza served as a facilitator of their plans to strip the Commission of many of its important functions and independence. In the end, the proposals by Ecuador, et al., were temporarily beaten back, thanks largely to the mobilization of civil society and the media.
If the OAS’s human rights standards and institutions dodged a bullet in the past 10 years, electoral standards were not so lucky. Since the mid-1980s, OAS had built up a formidable technical capacity to monitor the freeness and fairness of elections in the region. And there were a series of high profile successes in which the OAS courageously defended the rights of citizens to choose their leaders free of intimidation, fraud and abuse. While the OAS continued to monitor elections most recently in Panama, it largely stood on the sidelines in the electoral disputes in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and in the case of the former a series of electoral reports outlining flaws and recommending reforms were mysteriously disappeared from the OAS website.
And then there was the utter paralysis of the OAS with the Inter-American Charter as democratic checks and balances and human rights were dismantled or undermined in countries like Venezuela and Ecuador. But that’s already been well discussed elsewhere.
For these reasons, Almagro’s very specific reference to ensuring that elections are “transparent” and “inclusive” gave me a spark of hope. It was an artful way to say it, because without directly referencing international norms that many of the new leaders in the region have evaded by asserting national sovereignty, Almagro cut to the very weakness of several notable electoral systems in the region: their lack of transparency and their exclusiveness—not just by disenfranchising large portions of the population by their uneven playing fields but also in prohibiting the participation of democratic opposition leaders.
Insulza liked to claim that he was hostage to the wishes and demands of the 34 member states that make up the OAS, that he himself was not an executive but could only respond to his 34 constituents. I could never figure out whether that was disingenuous or just facile. Leadership—especially diplomatic leadership—requires adhering to principles and building coalitions. While César Gavíria—Insulza’s full-term predecessor—was criticized for being too insular and for not coordinating with the OAS, those very same traits allowed him to serve a greater leadership role in the region—not always successfully, but he was leading.
Insulza’s inertia and personalistic management style also damaged the institution itself. According to OAS staff, internally the organization has reached new levels of management disfunction with morale at an all-time low (which is saying something). This too was something Secretary General Almagro referenced when he talked about re-orienting the administration and called for a “cabildo abierto”—an open town hall—to hear the opinions and suggestions of the OAS staff and diplomatic missions.
Of course, all of these are just words. Even assuming Secretary General Almagro said them with the best of intentions, he faces a number of challenges including budget shortfalls, competition from the new group of regional multilateral organizations such as UNASUR and CELAC, and an ideologically divisive region—not to mention the overall bureaucratic black hole of the OAS.
But what gives me optimism beyond Almagro’s encouraging words is his recent history. He comes from a government—of former President Pepe Mujíca—that has played an outsized role in the region, in terms of improving commercial relations with the U.S. (despite being a small member of Mercosur), innovating in narcotics policy, and, most recently behind the scenes, heading off a confrontation between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in May.
Plus, timing is everything.
In six months, the country that has experienced the worst deterioration of electoral transparency and inclusiveness, Venezuela, will hold legislative elections. Given the economic collapse, near-complete de-institutionalization, and polarization of the country, these elections represent a critical juncture. At the risk of sounding alarmist, they may be the last chance. But it will be the first chance for Secretary General Almagro to show his leadership, diplomatic tact and principled commitment to the OAS past.
Negotiating a way in which the OAS can thoroughly, objectively and openly monitor Venezuela’s pre-electoral and election-day conditions will go a long way not just in restoring the OAS’s relevance but also its moral authority. And it wouldn’t be a bad way to start the first year of a Secretary General who comes from a beacon of those values: Uruguay.
[Now if I can just get someone to read this. Anyone? Out there? Care?]