Dexter Boniface

Does the OAS Have a Future?

In Inter-American Relations, Organization of American States, United States Government on March 9, 2010 at 3:17 pm

On February 23rd, 2010, Latin American leaders concluded a two-day Unity Summit in Playa del Carmen, Mexico and announced the creation of a new (yet-to-be-named) regional bloc that will include every country in Latin America and the Caribbean but exclude the United States and Canada. Could this new institution supplant the Organization of American States (OAS) and herald the demise of the U.S.-led inter-American system? Probably not, I argue below.

The View from Latin America

Latin Americans have long criticized the OAS for being a U.S.-dominated institution and sought mechanisms to counter-balance the influence of the United States in shaping the regional agenda. Over the last decade the search for such mechanisms has only intensified. There are a number of reasons for this new multilateralism in Latin America, including the declining influence (and attention) of the United States in the region; long-standing dissatisfaction with American policies; the  rise of extra-regional trade and investment partners such as the European Union, China and India; and the new spirit of independence among Latin American leaders, particularly those on the left.

Latin America’s vision for an “OAS without Empire” was well captured by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in an interview on CNN en Español (see below). While stressing that the goal of the new institution was not to replace the OAS, Correa  emphasized the need for Latin Americans to have their own institutions responding to their own interests. Even Mexico’s conservative President and staunch North American ally Felipe Calderón suggested the new bloc could counter (though not supplant) the OAS. For example, a Latin American forum excluding the United States and Canada would likely issue very different statements on contentious policy issues such as climate change, the Cuban embargo, the Falkland/Malvinas islands conflict, and the U.S.-led war(s) on drugs and terror. Still others, notably Mexico’s polemical former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, expressed concern that the forum could have undesirable consequences if it alienates the United States from Latin America.

The View from Washington

Latin America’s seeming break from the OAS comes at a time when many in Washington are questioning the utility of the OAS as well.  A U.S. Senate report commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was highly critical of the OAS and its Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. In a recent editorial, the Washington Post similarly lashed out at the OAS’s failure to consistently defend democracy in the region, sharply criticized Insulza, and urged Congress to “consider whether the United States should continue to provide the bulk of the funding for the OAS when it fails to live by its own charter.” Liz Harper, a contributing blogger for Americas Quarterly, faulted the OAS on similar grounds and suggested that it undergo a John Bolton-inspired downsizing of its bureaucracy. More sympathetic voices have suggested the need for institutional reforms, such as the creation of a UN-style Security Council or a Commission on Democracy, to make the OAS more effective at responding to regional crises. Striking a more optimistic tone, Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue has been one of the few to suggest that, “Obama would be wise to elevate the importance of the OAS.” Senators John Kerry and Robert Menendez recently introduced legislation to improve the embattled institution.

Conclusion: Does the OAS Have a Future?

Although enthusiasm for the OAS appears to be waning in both Latin America and Washington, the organization is unlikely to be supplanted anytime soon. The reason is three-fold.

First, in spite of recent criticism, the OAS retains distinctive normative and institutional strengths in important issue areas such as the promotion of democracy, election monitoring and human rights. Indeed, although many Latin American leaders have argued that the OAS should have taken a more aggressive approach in protesting the coup in Honduran last year and excluded Honduran President Porfirio Lobo from attending the summit, they showed no such qualms about welcoming the region’s least democratic leader, Cuban President Raúl Castro. The simple fact is that the regional democracy promotion agenda will be substantially weakened without the participation of the United States and Canada.

Second, Latin America’s push for a new “OAS without Empire” confronts obstacles of its own that are just as formidable, if not more so, as those confronting the OAS. For example, the internal divisions that have stymied the OAS were similarly on display in Playa del Carmen when Presidents Chávez and Uribe traded insults over bilateral relations. Moreover, as Andres Oppenheimer points out, Latin American leaders have a fairly limited vision for their new institution. It doesn’t even have a name yet, let alone stable financing or an institutional headquarters.

Third, and most importantly, the OAS can easily co-exist with (and benefit from) other multilateral institutions in the region. Indeed, the United States has thus far welcomed the creation of the new institution. If Latin American leaders can create a forum to solve their own problems, this is all the better for the United States and the agenda-heavy OAS. For instance, it was recently announced that Presidents Calderón, Lula and Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic would form a “group of friends” to mediate between Colombia and Venezuela. This initiative should be welcomed regardless of its institutional origin. The OAS could use a little competition.

Further Reading

DePalma, Anthony. “U.S. House of Representatives Goes “Animal House” on the OAS,” Americas Quaterly Blog 20 July 2011.

How Important is the Organization of American States?” interview with Harriet Babbitt, Roger Noriega, and John Maisto, Latin America Advisor, August 9, 2011.

Oppenheimer, Andres. “OAS is a basket case – but a needed one,” Miami Herald 25 July 2011.

Richardson, Bill. “U.S. should not retreat from the hemisphere,” Miami Herald 28 July 2011.

Rogin, Josh. “House panel votes to defund the OAS,” Foreign Policy: The Cable 20 July 2011.

The United States and Latin America: Collateral damage,” Economist 2 Aug. 2011.

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  1. It may be a good thing to elevate the importance of the OAS. But would that entail the U.S. to submit to its authority? I doubt this will happen in the near term. I also doubt any of the other major players in L.A. like Brazil, Colombia, or Venezuela would be willing to cede much sovereign power to a body like the OAS (or to any for that matter). I imagine the OAS will persist as a forum to promote lofty ideals about democracy and the defense of it, but will be plagued by its lack of teeth and will therefore continue to be subject to criticisms about its effectiveness.

    • The authority of the OAS is fairly limited in the first place so it is difficult to see an issue on which the U.S. would have to surrender much sovereignty (though the vote on the re-admission of Cuba into the organization might be one recent example where U.S. preferences were over-ruled, though with no real consequence). To the extent that the OAS has any teeth, they come mainly from the participation of the U.S. in the organization. True, the South American countries are not willing to cede much of their sovereignty, even to institutions in which the U.S. is not a member. However, this could change over the long-term as has happened in Europe. Over the long-term the OAS could also be revitalized, though only if the regional polarization abates.

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