"The [Organization of American States] is an enemy of the U.S. and an enemy to the interests of freedom and security,"
said Rep. David Rivera
, a Republican congressman from Florida, in July 2011 as he joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee's GOP majority in voting to cut off U.S. funding for the OAS. Rivera’s low regard for the organization was matched by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
, who in urging the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean to form a new regional bloc excluding the United States said, "You can’t expect much from the OAS. It’s like a corpse that must be buried."
The Organization of American States’ troubles go beyond being attacked from both extremes of the ideological spectrum. The April 2012 Summit of the Americas
showed many of the region's presidents disagreeing, at times sharply, with the United States on key issues like drug policy and diplomacy toward Cuba; several said they saw little reason to continue with the series of periodic meetings that began in 1995. Latin American governments, meanwhile, have formed a handful of parallel organizations that explicitly exclude the United States.
What is going on here? The OAS, the world's oldest regional organization, has never been a diplomatic powerhouse. Since the Pan-American Union's founding in 1910, it has rarely been the center of gravity for the Western Hemisphere's politics or diplomacy. It has helped to resolve only a small fraction of the region's armed conflicts or crises that threatened to deteriorate into conflicts.
Instead, the OAS has functioned as a multilateral sounding board, a place to build consensus around broad policies, from anti-communism to counternarcotics to counterterrorism. The ability to discuss issues at regular general assemblies and special sessions has reduced friction among its members. And some OAS components -- the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, electoral observer missions and efforts to verify postconflict demobilizations -- have made important contributions to regional peace, security and democracy.
But the OAS has been hampered by its design, which keeps it deliberately weak. The organization operates on a consensus model, in which a determined minority can prevent action. Its “one country, one vote” system means that a tiny state like St. Lucia has as much voice as a large state like Brazil. The OAS has no analogue to the U.N. Security Council and no dispute-resolution or peace-enforcement mechanism to deal with breaches of the peace like that contemplated in Chapters VI and VII of the U.N. Charter.
The OAS is also hampered by a perception, reinforced during the Cold War, that the Washington-based body is dominated by the United States. This is perhaps inevitable given the asymmetry of wealth and power between the United States and its regional neighbors. Still, the perception of an uneven playing field has damaged the organization's "honest broker" status and made Latin American states reluctant to take decisions that might require them to cede sovereignty to the OAS, even for the benefit of a greater good.
As a result, the OAS has not been viewed as a forum for debating drug policy. Instead, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), which is largely funded by the United States, has reinforced Washington’s hard-line approach emphasizing supply reduction. Nor has the OAS been a leading voice on regional security issues; little of note has emerged from its Secretariat for Multidimensional Security since it was established in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The organization's security guarantees exist mostly on paper: The 1947 Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty, which commits all countries to view an attack against one as an attack against all, has not been meaningfully invoked in decades, and Mexico dropped out of it entirely in the 2002 run-up to the Iraq War.
By contrast, the OAS has become a more active voice in favor of strengthening the region's 30-year-old transition from dictatorship to democracy. However, its 2001 Democratic Charter
, which in theory automatically suspends nondemocratic members and calls for diplomatic measures to deal with interruptions in democracy, has not been employed successfully. It failed key tests in Venezuela in 2002 and Honduras in 2009
, as well as in more recent cases of democratic erosion in several countries.
Cases of interstate conflict are rare in Latin America, but when they do occur they can be explosive. The OAS has played a role at times in defusing them, usually by quickly convening regional heads of state and exerting united international pressure.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, for instance, frequent flare-ups along a disputed border between Nicaragua and army-less Costa Rica were taken to the OAS. In one of the organization's greatest achievements, it helped broker an end to a brief 1995 border war between Peru and Ecuador, which included the deployment of a postconflict observer mission.
Many other 20th century border conflicts, though, were settled by other international actors. The Vatican, for instance, mediated a 1978 dispute between Argentina and Chile, and the International Court of Justice is currently considering a maritime dispute between Peru and Chile.
Far more common in Latin America have been internal conflicts: civil wars, insurgencies, coups d'état and mass outbreaks of violent crime. Here, it is far harder for an international actor to resolve the conflict, because it means obligating a state or an insurgency to change its behavior within its own borders.
The OAS’ role in resolving internal conflicts has been almost nonexistent. When international action has made a difference, it has most often come from ad hoc, selective groupings.
This goes back at least to the 1980s civil wars in Central America, a period in which the OAS was paralyzed by a lack of consensus as the Reagan administration resisted all initiatives to negotiate peace agreements. These initiatives instead came from ad hoc structures like the Contadora Group, comprised of Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, which tried and failed to broker negotiations between states and insurgencies, and the landmark Esquipulas II process, in which Central America's presidents agreed, in 1987, to follow a road map for negotiated ends to hostilities. Esquipulas II was particularly notable because it was one of the first conflict-resolution initiatives that succeeded without the participation of -- and in the face of initial opposition from -- the United States.
In the 1990s, the U.N. played the dominant role in resolving the region's internal conflicts. In Central America, Guatemala and El Salvador's postconflict demobilization and peace-accord implementation processes were mostly overseen by U.N. missions, though the OAS did oversee the demobilization of Nicaragua's Contra insurgents, an ambitious mission for which it received mixed reviews
. The 1990s also saw international involvement in Haiti, when a U.N. resolution authorized a U.S.-led multinational force to reverse a coup that had deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide nearly three years earlier. And at the end of the decade, the U.N. played a “good offices” role, largely behind the scenes, in the Colombian government's failed attempt to negotiate peace with the long-standing FARC guerrilla insurgency from 1998-2002.
For the OAS, as for all other international conflict resolvers, the record in the Americas has been spotty so far in the 21st century. The OAS, due in part to the United States' less-than-forceful response, failed to act -- as the Democratic Charter would have required -- in the crucial moments of the April 2002 coup that briefly deposed Chávez in Venezuela. The Colombian government later called on the OAS to set up a mission
to verify its 2003-2006 demobilization of pro-government paramilitary groups. While the mission thoroughly documented failings of the demobilization and transitional justice process, its publicly released findings and recommendations were significantly watered down under heavy pressure from the Colombian government.
In 2004, after Aristide was deposed in Haiti for a second time, the U.N. was again called on to assist in stabilizing the country. The Minustah peacekeeping mission
remains on the ground in Haiti, coordinating earthquake relief and public security efforts under Brazilian and Chilean leadership.
By 2008, nearly every country in Latin America was democratic and at peace. The region, however, had become ever more politically polarized. As democracies matured, several countries elected leftist leaders whose sharp criticisms of the United States' foreign policy and economic model surely would have seen them forced violently from office during the Cold War. The sharp divergence of views paralyzed the consensus-driven OAS and marginalized the United States as forces for regional conflict resolution.
This was spectacularly evident after March 1, 2008, when the U.S.-backed Colombian military carried out a bombing raid
about a mile inside Ecuadorean territory that destroyed a FARC guerrilla encampment and killed one of the group's top leaders. Ecuador and Venezuela immediately pulled their ambassadors from Bogotá, and Chávez sent tanks to Venezuela's border with Colombia, threatening war if Colombia should attempt a similar operation on Venezuelan territory. What dampened escalating tensions was an already scheduled March 7 meeting of the Rio Group, a 25-year-old forum of Latin American and Caribbean presidents excluding the United States and Canada, at which Chávez and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe agreed to stand down the border confrontation.
Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela flared up again in mid-2009, when Colombian media revealed secret negotiations between Bogotá and Washington for a defense agreement that would grant U.S. troops long-term use of Colombian bases. This time the work of reducing, or at least managing, tensions fell to a new organization: the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a political body founded with heavy Brazilian participation in 2008. At an emergency session of the recently established grouping, most of the continent’s governments expressed strong concerns to Colombia about the unilateral invitation of a U.S. military presence onto the continent. The UNASUR pressure forced Uribe to spend a week traveling to nearly every country in South America for bilateral discussions regarding the deal’s contents. While this defused tensions somewhat, the U.S.-Colombia defense agreement ultimately died in 2010, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that it required congressional ratification and newly elected President Juan Manuel Santos decided not to submit it to the legislature.
Though it has not become fully institutionalized -- its physical headquarters is still under construction, for instance -- UNASUR has become a vital player
in South American diplomacy. It now features a security and defense council, a center for security studies, an initiative to increase transparency over defense expenditures and a nascent council for the discussion of drug policy.
No organization, however, whether permanent or ad hoc, proved able to resolve one of the region’s nastiest internal crises of recent years: the June 2009 military coup that deposed leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya just seven months before his term was due to end. The interim coup government of Roberto Micheletti was not recognized by any government in the world, and the OAS voted unanimously to suspend Honduras. Nonetheless, all diplomatic efforts to reverse the coup -- whether by OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, Costa Rican President (and Esquipulas II leader) Oscar Arias or the Obama administration -- fell flat. Instead, President Porfirio Lobo was elected later that year, in a campaign marked by intimidation of the opposition and a U.S. decision to accept the result.
Among coup supporters on the political right in Honduras, the OAS committed an unforgivable sin by opposing Micheletti and supporting the return of a leader they believed to be closely aligned with Chávez's supposed designs for regional domination. Their anger was shared by politicians on the far right in the United States, which explains the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s bizarre vote in July 2011 to cut all U.S. funding to the OAS. The provision, which was more a piece of political showmanship than lawmaking, has gone nowhere.
Political tensions remain high in Honduras, but were reduced somewhat by Zelaya's 2011 return, which was brokered by another very unlikely ad hoc arrangement: the joint leadership of Colombia and Venezuela, whose governments had gradually re-established relations after Santos assumed office in Bogotá, replacing Uribe in 2010.
Crises, conflicts and disputes throughout the region continue to escape the reach of international mediation today. Colombia's 48-year-old conflict with the FARC and ELN guerrilla insurgencies rages on. Nicaragua's 2008 municipal and 2010 presidential elections were met with widespread allegations of fraud. Venezuela and Ecuador have taken steps to limit press freedom and the activity of nongovernmental organizations, drawing expressions of concern from Insulza that have only inspired harsh public criticisms of the OAS from these countries' leaders. Violence, fueled by proceeds from the drug trade, has spun out of control in Mexico and Central America. Cuba, meanwhile, continues to restrict basic freedoms and jail political prisoners, while the United States persists in its unilateral, fruitless 50-year-old effort to effect change there through diplomatic isolation and a trade embargo. Leaders who see little use for the OAS frequently cite its decades-long inability to move the lines on the Cuba issue.
The regional conflict-resolution trends are clear. Interstate conflicts remain far easier to resolve than internal conflicts, although the task of resolving them is now falling less to the OAS and more to new subregional organizations or ad hoc diplomatic arrangements. U.S. support, once seen as indispensable for the success of any conflict-resolution effort, is now optional: Twenty years after Esquipulas II, the region resolved the Colombia-Venezuela, Colombia-Ecuador and Zelaya disputes on its own, with no input from Washington.
Where these trends are headed, though, is not clear. Reduced U.S. hegemony, for instance, could mean greater credibility for the OAS, which for so long was viewed as dominated by Washington. On the other hand, the region's sharp ideological and political divisions could continue to render the organization inoperable. The next big test for the OAS will be its ability to chart an independent path on drug policy. In the face of increasing criticism of the U.S. approach, the region's leaders decided at their April 2012 summit to charge the OAS with producing a document laying out the pros and cons of alternative policies. For the OAS, the stakes are high: If its document ends up simply ratifying the status quo under heavy U.S. pressure, the damage to the organization’s credibility will be significant.
Another unclear trend is the viability of the new regional organizations
that have sprung up in the past few years. While it appears to be the most active, UNASUR remains without an institutional infrastructure, and key members -- particularly South America's two most populous countries, Brazil and Colombia -- appear to prefer that it remain little more than a periodic forum for ministerial and presidential discussions. Another organization, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC), was founded in 2010 as a sort of OAS minus the United States and Canada
. This grouping replaces the old Rio Group, but it has so far amounted to only two presidential meetings in as many years and is showing little momentum. The region's defense ministers, including the United States and Canada, continue to meet every two years for week-long conferences that achieve no new commitments. At the subregional level, Mercosur in the Southern Cone, the Andean Community, Caricom in the Caribbean and SICA in Central America are largely commercial groupings that have played no conflict-resolution role, with the exception of SICA, which has haltingly sought to coordinate regional cooperation against organized crime.
While they avoid some of the divisions and roadblocks that have hampered the OAS, these groupings all seem to be semipermanent at best. Key participating countries prefer to keep them weak rather than cede sovereignty to them. All manage few, if any, economic resources of their own. And all exclude civil society from meaningful participation. As a result, we can expect their growth to be slow and heavily dependent on the interests of regional powers like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. Nonetheless, their existence should make interstate conflict resolution and defense cooperation at least modestly easier than before.
The conflict-resolution challenges of the near future are also uncertain. If Colombia finally moves toward a negotiation with the FARC and ELN guerrillas, this will likely be an endogenous process with little international input other than good offices. Regional cooperation against organized crime may progress, but it will do so in the face of suspicions of corruption among counterpart security forces and reluctance to share intelligence. Sharply diverging models of public security will also lead to disagreements over whether to involve the military, negotiate with gangs or focus on judicial reform. The influence in the region of new outside actors, such as China, Iran, India and Russia, is still hard to gauge. And the possibility of instability in Venezuela, where Chávez continues to battle against cancer with no heir apparent in his party emerging, could alter the regional equation substantially.
Amid this uncertainty, it is sadly likely that the OAS, at least in its present form, will have little role to play. The organization will not disappear: If only as a regional forum, it is better to have it around than not, and no nation is proposing to leave it. But as it remains peripheral to the region's principal security, diplomatic and conflict-resolution concerns, it is only reasonable to expect the OAS to shrink in relevance in coming years.
Adam Isacson is senior associate for regional security at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Photo: Leaders at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, April 19, 2009 (Agencia Brasil photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil