The Washington Diplomat / August 2005
By Larry Luxner
José Miguel Insulza and Albert Ramdin — two men of vastly different backgrounds and countries — have been chosen to head the Organization of American States in the midst of political and economic crisis throughout the hemisphere.
Insulza, Chile's former minister of interior, is the organization's new secretary-general, while Ramdin, a Surinamese diplomat, has been elected assistant secretary-general.
Both men were interviewed July 18 at OAS headquarters in Washington, nearly two months after Insulza's swearing-in ceremony and a day before Ramdin's inauguration. They assume the leadership of an organization that — like the United Nations — has in recent years been plagued by bloated bureaucracy, money shortages and political squabbles.
In addition, Insulza's predecessor at the OAS, Miguel Angel Rodríguez, was forced to resign last October after only three weeks on the job, following accusations that he accepted a bribe in 2001 while president of Costa Rica. In so doing, Rodríguez became the first secretary-general in the organization's 57-year history to quit over corruption charges.
But Insulza, 62, says that will have no long-term effect on the OAS or its many projects.
"The OAS may have some image problems in terms of relevance, but we haven't had any kind of corruption crisis," he told the Diplomat. "The crisis that brought down Mr. Rodríguez was a problem that occurred before he was secretary-general, so I don't see how it can or should affect the organization."
Asked whether his management style will be different from that of previous OAS chiefs over the course of his five-year term, the no-nonsense Insulza said "I prefer not to comment on my predecessors. They have all been very worthy secretary-generals, and I don't need to compare myself with them."
Insulza, a father of three and an attorney by profession, has a law degree from the University of Chile, did postgraduate studies at the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty in Mexico and has a master's in political science from the University of Michigan.
Until 1973, he taught political science at both the University of Chile and at Santiago's Catholic University. Following the coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power, Insulza went into exile for 15 years — first in Rome (1974-80) and then in Mexico (1981-88). While in Mexico City, he met his wife, Georgina Nuñez Reyes, and taught at several Mexican universities.
In 1988, after Chileans voted against Pinochet's continued rule in a plebiscite, Insulza returned home and helped lead a political movement toward democratic elections in 1990. A member of Chile's Socialist Party, Insulza has held a number of high-level government posts ranging from ambassador for international cooperation to minister of foreign affairs. In 2000, President Ricardo Lagos named him minister of the interior and vice-president of the republic.
When he left that post in May 2005 to head the OAS, Insulza had served as a government minister for more than a decade, the longest continuous tenure for a minister in Chilean history.
What will having Insulza at the head of the OAS mean for the organization?
Alex Sánchez, an analyst with the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says not much is likely to change, at least in the short term.
Writing in COHA's May 2005 newsletter, he said the Chilean's victory over Luís Ernesto Derbéz, the former foreign minister of Mexico, came as no surprise — despite the fact that Derbéz was strongly backed by the White House for the OAS top spot.
"Insulza's election is of little significance to hemispheric relations, as he is not likely to embark on a new binge of innovative inter-American policy making," Sánchez wrote. "However, his victory is the first time in the organization's more than half-century history that Washington's preferetti has not been elected to the OAS' secretary-general position."
The OAS, which comprises several elegant buildings along Constitution Avenue, was formed in April 1948 by the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela. Another 17 states have subsequently joined, bringing total membership to 34.
In addition, 46 countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Yemen have permanent observer status at the OAS, as does the European Union. One country, Cuba, was suspended in 1962 on charges of subversion, though it remains a member in principle.
In fact, the issue of restoring Cuba's full membership in the body comes up from time to time, but little is likely to happen as long as George Bush is in the White House. After all, the United States contributes 60% of the organization's budget, and the OAS is eager to avoid controversy.
"I've always said this shouldn't be a motive for division among the organization," said Insulza. "Some countries are in favor [of re-admitting Cuba], some are against. If that's going to be a divisive issue, it's better not to deal with it. If there would be a change of heart for the countries against Cuba, that's different. But we know what the outcome will be."
Meanwhile, relations between the OAS and the United States are "very good," insists Insulza, despite Washington's initial opposition to his candidacy.
"I've met President Bush, I've seen Rice several times, and I have daily access [to the State Department]," he said. "The United States is paying the largest amount of the OAS budget, and is helping in a lot of projects. They consult us regularly on Latin America."
This year, the OAS general budget is only $76 million — compared to $110 million in 1994. Most of the remaining 40% that doesn't come from the United States is contributed by only five countries: Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Chile.
While the $76 million doesn't include allocations for special projects, says Insulza, it's clearly not enough to keep the OAS going.
"That's compounded by the fact that contributions are not paid on time," he complained. "We should raise the contributions to make them more according to each countries' level of development. We hope to have that issue solved by the end of this year, and to discuss the possibility of setting new quotas in a special assembly."
Insulza said the United States would continue to pay 60% of the OAS budget, but declined to say how much he thinks that budget should be increased.
He did tell the Diplomat that the organization's priorities would have to change, especially with regard to the way decisions are made.
"The OAS has four main areas of work: political matters, human rights, development and security. But within these areas, there are too many mandates. Both in mandates and projects, you have to set priorities and deal with each," Insulza explained.
"In development, for example, donor countries complain that we have too many smaller projects. Maybe we should have fewer projects, but ones that make more of a difference in the economy or social life of the country. In matters of security, we have a lot of projects dealing with terrorism and military threats, but very few dealing with crime and natural disasters."
By far, the most important issue facing Latin America today is governance, he says.
"The crises we face are not crises of ideology or the military kind, they're basically governance issues: instability, lack of transparency and problems with bureaucracy," said Insulza. Those issues are behind the current uprisings this year in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
In Bolivia, angry indigenous movements have already ousted two democratically elected presidents — Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa — while in Ecuador, Lucio Gutiérrez was ousted as president earlier this year by angry mobs following allegations of corruptions. The new president, Alfredo Palacio, is Ecuador's fifth head of state in less than 10 years.
Nevertheless, Insulza says he's "quite confident" that the political situation in Bolivia will be resolved, and that the country will hold elections by year's end.
"We only hope that Bolivia will begin a new period of stability," he said. "We're also going to sign an agreement with Ecuador to encourage the democratic process, and we have a special mission in Nicaragua working toward stability and a reasonable outcome to the confrontation there."
But political chaos is hardly the only crisis plaguing Latin America.
"In security matters, certainly drugs are a major problem. We have to deal not only with organized crime but also common crime in the cities, and gangs pose a big threat," said the OAS chief. "In matters of development, we must deal with institutional bottlenecks to fulfill the [United Nations] Millennium Goals."
"Each international organization should have its own agenda, especially in matters of poverty. Let's see what each of us can do towards [achieving the] common Millennium Goals, instead of inventing a new agenda."
One item on Insulza's agenda that won't please everyone, however, is passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The OAS chief says CAFTA is a crucial step in furthering the cause of free trade and economic integration, though many members of Congress oppose it on protectionist, labor or environmental grounds.
"Most of the things that are said against CAFTA are not true," he said. "Of course, I'm personally in favor of CAFTA, and I assume that everyone working in this organization is also in favor."
Insulza said it's important that Congress approve the legislation, which he said "will certainly give new impulse to trade negotiations," and that there should be some political review of the Free Trade Area of the Americas initiative supported by the White House.
Ramdin, Insulza's right-hand man at the OAS, is a widely respected career diplomat from Dutch-speaking Suriname, which is geographically part of South America but has strong cultural links with the Caribbean.
"Suriname functions as a bridge between the two regions," he said. "For example, it was because of Suriname's engagement with South America that the first meeting ever between Brazil and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) took place in Suriname. And the first meeting between Caricom and India at a ministerial level took place in Suriname, thanks to the longstanding relations between Suriname and India. In that sense, Suriname is helping to facilitate the expansion of Caricom."
Ramdin was nominated to his current post in July 2003 and his campaign officially began last October. Ramdin's rival for the job was Paraguayan Foreign Minister Leila Rachid, who had served as ambassador in Washington prior to returning to Asunción. But Rachid abruptly ended her candidacy after Insulza was elected secretary-general.
"There's a tradition in the OAS that two countries from the same region cannot assume the leadership. So when South America got Insulza elected, she had to withdraw," said Ramdin. "Then Ernesto Leal of Nicaragua announced his candidacy. So where we had counted on Central American solidarity, we had to do some battling."
Ramdin said that "as a relatively unknown country, it is a matter of national pride for Suriname" to have one of its own win the No. 2 spot at the OAS.
"Whenever my name is mentioned, Suriname is also mentioned. For a small country, it's important to be able to say to the world that we are capable of delivering candidates," he said. "But it's been a real challenge to get support, simply because if we had been a bigger country, we wouldn't have needed to convince the others. In our case, it took a lot of convincing. For that reason, from the beginning my campaign was based on substantive arguments: you must have a vision for the organization, and somebody who can do the job."
Ever since he was a teenager, Ramdin has wanted to be a diplomat.
"Starting from a very young age, I read a lot of books," he said. "When I was 14, I read 'Das Kapital,' most of which I did not understand." That same year, Ramdin worked in his first political campaign, later moving to Amsterdam, where he studied social geography.
A Surinamese diplomat who has served, among other things, as his country's ambassador to the OAS and as advisor to former OAS Secretary General César Gaviria, Ramdin more recently was special advisor to the government of Suriname on Western Hemisphere affairs.
Ramdin, 47, points out that he's the same age as William Manger, the first assistant secretary-general of the OAS, was when he took office in 1948.
Ramdin was elected to the post June 7 by foreign ministers gathered for the OAS General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He succeeded U.S. diplomat Luigi Einaudi, a former State Department official, and, like Insulza, will serve for the next five years.
"Institutionally, we have to make the OAS stronger, in the sense of being able to deliver on strengthening democracy, human rights and economic development. That will require some restructuring within the organization. We'll have to make certain choices," he said, adding that "the financing of this organization is very weak, and we'll have to be creative there, too. We are on a shoestring budget."
The OAS has nearly 600 employees, 80% of whom are based in Washington; the rest work out of regional offices throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet it's unlikely that the OAS will give any of its staffers pink slips.
"When you want to restructure, the last thing you want to do is cut personnel," said Ramdin. "The amount of mandates the OAS gets from member states is increasing. How would we be able to deliver on those mandates if we send people home? What we need is an increase in staffing, which leaves only one option: increasing the budget."
He added that "there is a general feeling that the quotas need to increase among all countries."
Coming from tiny Suriname, which has only 450,000 inhabitants — making it the least populated nation in South America — Ramdin is especially sensitive to the feeling of being pushed around by larger nations. That holds true with the OAS, which is made up of 34 nations of unequal political and economic clout.
"It's not only about what the big countries want, but also what is relevant to smaller countries," he explained. "You always run the risk that when a country pays 60% of the OAS budget, there's a sense of ownership, and that'll translate into 'this is how I want things to be done.' That happened in the past. But at this point in time, the United States is just a partner. Of course, their voice is a bit louder and we recognize that you hear it more often than the others."
Ramdin says he sees security as the hemisphere's most pressing issue.
"It's not only about terrorism or military threats, but also social and economic development. It's about vulnerability and natural disasters. Look at what's happening in the Caribbean. Grenada was just starting the first steps to recovery [from last year's Hurricane Ivan], and now it's devastated again."
Ramdin said both he and Insulza agree that "the OAS has to become much more concrete in what it does. Projects which impact the lives of people" will take precedence.
"This organization is very relevant for all countries. I don't think anybody wants to lose that opportunity. Don't forget that most of the difficulties countries face are cross-border issues. They need to cooperate, and the only platform for that in the hemisphere is the OAS," he said.
"The OAS has a lot of experience in promoting dialogue. We don't want to wait until there is a crisis. Many of these crises could have been prevented from escalating. Ecuador is one example of that; Bolivia is another."
Unfortunately, Ramdin says, diplomats often take pains to avoid bringing up uncomfortable subjects.
"We had our General Assembly in Quito last year," he pointed out. "Did anybody raise the issue of instability in Ecuador? You had 34 countries present, and nobody talked directly about Ecuador. They only spoke about corruption in general terms."
And that's part of the problem. But the real issue, he said, is the underlying cause of failure.
"One of the Andean Community's biggest challenges is the role of indigenous peoples. Constitutionally elected governments are being forced out of office by a force within the democratic framework. Democracy gave them the right to demonstrate, and within that framework, they are protesting," he said.
"In the 1980s and early 1990s, democracy was restored in many countries. We told people that life would be better, and life is not better for most people. Economies grow, but it doesn't mean the benefits trickle down to the people. We need good social and economic policies, and education. If you want to promote social justice, you have to pay attention to those things, not only to trade."
In the entire hemisphere, there is probably no worse country to live in than Haiti.
Struggling with political chaos, rising crime and an annual per-capita GDP of under $300 a year, Haiti is one of the world's poorest countries — despite years of assistance from the OAS and other multilateral agencies.
Ramdin says that in order to understand Haiti, one must take into consideration its isolation and its 200-year history of exploitation both by outsiders and corrupt Haitian politicians.
"We expect too much from Haiti," said the diplomat. "We think things will work out very quickly if we bring back democracy and organize elections. That's a myth."
Ramdin says security in Haiti must be improved, noting a recent dramatic increase in violence and kidnappings which threaten to jeopardize any progress toward democracy since last year's overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
"There was never a problem with elections, but with governability," he said. "I would hope that the support for Haiti is not only towards the elections, but what will happen after next February. That's the real challenge: will the new government be capable of maintaining peace, order and stability? If they are not, they will face the same problems as any previous government. Haitians look at outsiders for help, but the real solution is from within."