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A Latin American snub

Print edition : Jun 17, 2005 T+T-
Jose Miguel Insulza (left) is applauded after his election as the Secretary-General of the OAS, in Washington.-JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Jose Miguel Insulza (left) is applauded after his election as the Secretary-General of the OAS, in Washington.-JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

The Organisation of American States gives a jolt to the U.S. by rejecting its candidate for the leadership of the regional grouping.

THE election of Jose Miguel Insulza as the Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in May was yet another diplomatic and political setback for the George Bush administration in Latin America. Insulza, currently the Interior Minister of Chile, was not the candidate Washington was originally backing for the post. It had thrown its weight behind Luis Enesto Derbez, Mexico's Foreign Minister. Washington's first choice for the post was the former President of El Salvador, Francisco Flores.

It is for the first time in the history of the OAS, established in 1948, that a candidate without the explicit backing of the United States, has been elected for the post. The OAS, especially during the Cold War years, was an important part of the U.S.' geo-strategic plans to keep Latin America under its control. Many in the region viewed the OAS as a modern instrument to implement the infamous Monroe Doctrine, under which the U.S. retained the right to interfere in the affairs of neighbouring countries in the 19th century.

The writing on the wall was clear for the Bush administration when the meeting of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in February ended with a majority of its members opting for the Chilean candidate. The post fell vacant when the incumbent, the former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez, was forced to resign after barely a month in office. He was accused of financial skulduggery during his term as President of Costa Rica.

Francisco Flores was accused of corruption and widespread human rights violation during 1999-2004 when he was President of El Salvador. In the last couple of months, there were more allegations of money laundering and fraudulent bank dealings against him. It was no surprise that he dropped out of the reckoning as he could win the solid backing of only the close allies of the U.S. such as Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Derbez was a late entrant in the race. He was initially more interested in running as a candidate in the forthcoming presidential election in Mexico. However, the current President, Vincente Fox, is backing the Interior Minister as his successor. With Flores proving to be an unviable candidate, Washington shifted its support to the Mexican candidate.

Despite hectic lobbying by the Bush administration, Debrez could not win. Mexico's vote for the U.S.-E.U. resolution against Cuba at the recent United Nations Human Rights Convention at Geneva may have played a role in queering the pitch for Debrez. Owing to new political realities in Latin America, Cuba now has many more supporters in the OAS. Nobody denies Cuba's influence in the Caribbean region. Venezuela too has earned a lot of goodwill in the region by helping needy countries with subsidised supplies of oil.

One of the aims of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent whistle-stop trip to Latin America was to mobilise support for Debrez. She did not succeed in her effort as the governments of Brazil and Argentina stood firmly behind the candidature of Insulza. Voting took place in Washington in late April. Insulza and Debrez were tied with 17 votes apiece, after five rounds of voting. Washington had to finally bend in order to break the impasse. It reluctantly agreed to the candidature of Insulza and the 34-member body unanimously elected him.

Insulza belongs to Chile's ruling Socialist Party. He has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. war on Iraq. He was also critical of the U.S. government's role in the abortive military coup against the government of Venezuela led by President Hugo Chavez. Debrez, on the other hand, was one of the few Latin American leaders who supported the U.S.-backed Venezuelan putschists. Insulza, however, is no radical cast in the Chavez mould. As Chilean Foreign Minister, he worked overtime to bail out the former President, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, from the legal maze he got involved in England, five years ago. Insulza may have been merely trying to be faithful to the reconciliation policies embraced by the Socialist Party after the Chilean military went back to the barracks. The new OAS Secretary-General was himself in exile during Pinochet's military dictatorship.

After Washington signalled that it would support the Chilean as the consensus candidate for the OAS Secretary-General's post, Insulza was quick to state that one of his priorities would be to strengthen, protect and promote democracy in the region. He expressed the hope that Cuba would also undergo "a transition to democracy". Cuba remains suspended from the OAS since 1962, three years after the triumph of the revolution. At the same time, Washington saw to it that the doors of the OAS never closed for brutal right wing authoritarian regimes of Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and the 1980s. According to media reports, Insulza's statement was designed as a face-saver for the Bush administration. Senior Bush administration officials were quick to express their happiness with Insulza's emphasis on democracy. Interestingly, Insulza was recently in Haiti when he was campaigning for the Secretary-General's post. The constitutional government led by Jean Bertrand Aristide was ousted in an U.S.-backed coup in early 2004.

However, during his acceptance speech on May 2, Insulza called for "forging a consensus that allows us to overcome the erroneous consensus of irrelevance that damages our hemispheric effort". It was a barb against the hegemonic role of the U.S. in the region. He did not talk about the OAS holding the states of the region accountable to the Democracy Charter.

According to the Charter the governments in the hemisphere that are not democratically elected "should be held accountable by the OAS". After the American attempts at subverting democracy in Venezuela and Haiti, many OAS members are no longer willing to be lectured on the subject by the Bush administration. In 2003, OAS members refused to elect an American representative to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This was the first time that the U.S. was left without a member on the Commission since its inception. An OAS observer mission sent to Venezuela for the 2004 referendum reported that the voting was fair and free, much to the unhappiness of Washington. The U.S. State Department had criticised the conduct of the referendum exercise, despite the international community praising it.

Many observers are of the view that Washington's stranglehold on the OAS started to loosen after the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002.

Sixty per cent of the OAS budget is provided by the U.S. With the organisation no longer at its beck and call, there are fears that Washington would cut funding and allow a slow death. Anyway, major Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina are no longer enamoured of the neoliberal economic agenda of the U.S. Even the Chilean government, which had embraced market reforms and globalisation with gusto, now seems to be opting for a middle course.

The Bush administration had suffered another major setback this year when it failed to persuade Latin American countries to sign the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The agreement was to be initialled on January 1, 2005. The FTAA negotiations had to be suspended as Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay refused to lift trade barriers. Chavez has already proposed an alternative to FTAA in the shape of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), which aims at economic cooperation and integration among Latin American countries. Venezuela has signed far-reaching agreements with Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. These include two key projects - Petrosur and Telesur. Petrosur will operate throughout Latin America bringing together all the state-run oil companies in the region. Telesur will be an alternative to global Western media outlets like the CNN. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are also closely involved in the Telesur project, which aims to break the monopoly of the Spanish language CNN service in Latin America.