Dexter Boniface

Archive for the ‘Organization of American States’ Category

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.


Constitutional Coup in Nicaragua

In Democratic Crisis, Inter-American Relations, Nicaragua, Organization of American States, United States Government on October 27, 2009 at 10:02 pm

On Monday, October 19th, 2009, the constitutional commission of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court overturned the constitutional article (No. 147) that prohibits presidents (and mayors) from seeking re-election and serving more than two terms. The decision paves the way for left-leaning President Daniel Ortega to seek re-election in 2011. However, critics allege that the decision was not legal and is thus tantamount to a “constitutional coup”.  The ruling is just one of several worrisome developments that  (further) call into question Nicaragua’s democratic credentials.


Ortega, a leader and former president (1984-1990) during the Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990) was re-elected to the presidency in 2006. His re-election was preceded by years of corrupt and Machiavellian deal-making between Nicaragua’s two largest political parties, the Liberals and Ortega’s Sandinistas (including a deal that enabled Ortega to win the presidency in the first round of voting with less than 40% of the vote). Since taking power, moreover, Ortega has been heavily criticized for his authoritarian tendencies. Municipal elections on November 9, 2008 (a major victory for the Sandinistas) were accompanied by widespread accusations of fraud–leading the United States and European countries  to suspend aid to the impoverished country. Furthermore Sandinista supporters have routinely attacked peaceful anti-government demonstrations in the country.

A Constitutional Coup?

Ortega’s critics have questioned the legality of the Supreme Court’s recent decision–and rightfully so. According to Nicaraguan law, the Constitution can only be amended by the legislature. Lacking the legislative support needed to amend the constitution, Ortega turned instead to the country’s heavily politicized courts.

The Supreme Court was evenly divided between Sandinista and Liberal appointees but the death of a Liberal Party justice tipped the balance in favor of the Sandinistas. In fact, only Sandinista appointees were present during the controversial constitutional vote and the president of the Supreme Court (a Liberal Party appointee), refused to recognize the decision. However, Liberal Party judges lack the votes to overturn the decision.

The Court’s decision has generated international criticism (including strong rebuke from the United States) and driven Nicaraguan opposition groups to mount daring and often humorous underground protests–in one, toilets were placed on the sidewalk of the Supreme Electoral Council with copies of the Constitution as toilet paper. For their part, pro-Sandinista mobs threatened the U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan and vandalized the U.S. Embassy.

Adding to the controversy, in 2010, Ortega issued a pair of controversial decrees extending the terms of 25 magistrates and judges, including two Sandinista loyalists on the Supreme Court. When the President of the Supreme Court, Manuel Martíne, ordered the justices to surrender their gavels, armed Sandinista supporters stormed the court building and cheered the defiant judges as they reclaimed their seats on the bench. When Congressional opposition members subsequently met to discuss repealing the controversial decree, they too were attacked, leaving three lawmakers injured:

The OAS Should Act Now

My take: the recent breakdown of democracy in Nicaragua demands a response from the Organization of American States (OAS). Indeed, during the Honduran crisis (see blogpost), the OAS was accused of applying a double standard by defending besieged left-wing presidents but ignoring the threats to democracy posed by power-hungry (left-wing) populists. Taking a strong stand against Ortega’s blatant power-grab would demonstrate that the organization applies a consistent standard in its defense of democracy. Article 20 of the organization’s Democratic Charter stipulates that, “In the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state, any member state or the Secretary General may request the immediate convocation of the Permanent Council to undertake a collective assessment of the situation and to take such decisions as it deems appropriate.” The OAS should act now.

Further Reading

Carter Center, “Friends of The Inter-American Democratic Charter Issue Statement on Crisis in Nicaragua,” April 22, 2010.

Corrales, Javier, “Nicaragua: Déjà Coup All Over Again?Huffington Post, November 3, 2009.

Diehl, Jackson, “Leftist thugocracy in Nicaragua: Will Washington notice?Washington Post, April 21, 2010.

Economist, “Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua: The show goes on (More blows against democracy),” April 29th 2010.

______, “How to steal an election,” Nov. 13th, 2008.

“For contras, a reprise of bitter discontent,” Miami Herald, November 20, 2009. Ex-contras re-organize?

Freedom House, “Country Report: Nicaragua,” Freedom in the World, 2010.

______, “Country Report: Nicaragua,” Freedom in the World, 2009.

Johnson, Tim, “Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega lays groundwork to stay in power,” Miami Herald, August 17, 2010.

Miami Herald, “Another president for life?” August 17, 2010.

Oppenheimer, Andres, “Nicaragua headed for one-man rule–again,” Miami Herald, March 17, 2011.

Rogers, Tim, Sandinistas demand removal of OAS ambassador to Nicaragua,” Daily News (Costa Rica), Sept. 14, 2010.

______, “Could Honduras crisis prompt a power grab in Nicaragua?” Christian Science Monitor, February 9, 2010.

______, “Ortega targeting his ex-comrades,” Miami Herald, Oct. 6th, 2008.

Sabatini, Christopher, “Here We Go Again: Nicaragua-Honduras-Re-Election,” Americas Quarterly, November 6, 2009.

News from Nicaragua:
1 Year After Municipal Elections:

Nicaragua’s Democracy Still Unraveling

By Tim Rogers
Nica Times Staff |