Three years ago, the 100-year-old Organization of American States (OAS) seemed on the brink of extinction. Many powerful Latin American nations dismissed it as a colonialist tool of the United States considered it inactive and ineffective. Few nations were paying their bills, forcing the regional organization to cut staffing to the bone.
Today, however, there is renewed interest in the organization, in part because the collapse of the Soviet Union may have removed security issues as a major concern governing the U.S. view of Latin America. One immediate effect is that the financial picture is less bleak. The United States, historically a big debtor to international organizations, paid its entire quota last year, and one-fifth of its arrearages. This year, it plans to pay its whole quota again, as well as a chunk of its past due payments, which it promises to completely pay over the next four years.
Many Latin Americans are pleased with this apparent shift in the United States’ world view. “For a people to be freed of an obsession is very good,” said Mario Rolón Anaya, Bolivia’s ambassador to the OAS. “Once the United States was freed from its obsession with communism, it has come to see the world with other eyes.”
The history of the OAS is one of alternating paralysis, when Latin American nations defied the United States, and U.S hegemony, when most Latin and Caribbean nations acquiesed. “We don’t have the hegemonic control that we did in the 1950s,” says Amb. Viron Vaky, an analyst who recently retired from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have steering.”
Since its beginning in the 1889-1890 First International Conference of American States, the OAS has been based in Washington, D.C. In 1910, the association became the Pan American Union and moved into current OAS headquarters. Ironically, the magnificent neo-Classical building near the White House, donated by Andrew Carnegie, has been said at times to be the only reason for the organization’s continued existence. Financially this is true–the building where the OAS ambassadors make the organization’s decisions is mortgaged to the hilt.
Since the OAS adopted its current charter in 1948, its history has been a string of low points sprinkled with humiliations. At the urging–or insistence–of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at the Tenth International Conference in Caracas in March, 1954, the OAS voted 17-1 in favor of a “Declaration of Solidarity for the Preservation of Political Integrity of the American States Against International Communist Intervention.” This was sought by the United States to prepare the way for its intervention against the nationalist Arbenz regime in Guatemala.
Eleven years later, the OAS supported the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic to prevent the return of ousted President Juan Bosch, a leftist nationalist who had won the 1962 election but served just seven months before being deposed by the military. When U.S. troops intervened to defeat a 1965 “counter-coup” planned by Bosch loyalist, the OAS failed to condemn the clear violation of Article 18 of its charter forbidding intervention “directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.” Worse, the United States was able to muster support within the OAS to create an Inter-American Peace Force to join U.S. troops in Santo Domingo.
Similarly, throughout the 1980s the United States blocked Nicaragua’s efforts to convince the OAS to condemn U.S. financing if the Contra rebels. While the OAS proudly points to its sending of OAS Secretary General João Baena Soares and others to Nicaragua to observe the February 1990 presidential election, the OAS had been deliberately bypassed by the Contadora group in its attempts to mediate the Nicaraguan conflict. Contadora and its successors at the peace talks initiated by then-Costa Rican President Oscar Arias rejected the OAS as a forum precisely because it was too dominated by the United States.
But here may be new signs of energy–if not yet independence from the United States. The first hint was OAS General Assembly Resolution 1080, passed unanimously in Chile last summer. The resolution is aimed at protecting the region’s political democracies. If the democratic process in a member country is interrupted, the resolution says, regional foreign ministers or General Assembly will meet “to look into the events collectively and adopt any measures deemed appropiate.”
The First test came so fast that OAS ambassadors were caught off-guard. On September 30, when the resolution was less than three months old, an old-fashioned military-elite alliance tossed out Haiti’s populist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The OAS reacted quickly–perhaps too quickly, critics are now saying–by slapping a trade embargo on the Caribbean nation and hammering out an agreement, now foundering, designed to return Aristide to the presidency.
The embargo has visited undeniable hardship on the nation, already the poorest in the hemisphere, but it has not been leakproof. European companies have continued doing business in Haiti, and wealthy Haitians have been able to fly to Miami and buy embargoed goods.
The second test of the Santiago declaration came on April 5, 1992, when President Alberto Fujimori suspended the Peruvian constitution and announced he would rule by decree. The autogolpe in Peru presented a different set of problems for the OAS. First, Fujimori had been democratically elected, and second, his power grab was–for the time being–popular in Peru.
Predictably, blocks in the OAS were formed according to national interest. Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, reacted mildly to the Peruvian coup because of a desire to see order in a neighboring country, and because of fear that Shining Path’s war might spread. In contrast, some black Caribbean nations called for all sanctions on Haiti to be slapped on Peru forthwith, in an effort to ensure that the two situations be handled similarly. The organization has urged the slashing of foreign aid to Peru, and has threatened to impose sanctions if Fujimori does not soon restore some semblance of a democratic process.
As of July, both situations are in flux. But it is important to recognize that if these two crises had arisen just five years ago, the Peruvian and Haitian governments could have avoided sanctions and retained foreign aid by convincing U.S. officials of a spurious communist threat. But times have changed. Who could have imagined State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher making public statements backing the choice of moderate communist Rene Theodore as Haiti’s consensus prime minister? And despite bitter disputes with Peruvian opposition leader Alan García during his 1985-1990 presidency, Washington is pushing Fujimori to negotiate with García, who is in exile in Colombia.
It’s not clear whether the organization can exert the diplomatic savvy to be effective in these two very different situations. Neither is it clear what the “New World Order” holds in store for relations between Washington and the rest of the hemisphere. But there is hope in some quarters that the OAS has finally found an effective diplomatic voice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Diane Bartz covers Latin American issues for Agence-France Presse.