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OAS Secretary General Profile: José Miguel Insulza
Américas / October 2005

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON — José Miguel Insulza, newly appointed secretary-general of the OAS, says the 34-member body will have to make some administrative, structural and financial changes in order to stay relevant in the 21st century.

Insulza, Chile's former minister of interior, was sworn in May 26 to replace Miguel Angel Rodríguez, who was forced to resign last October after only three weeks on the job. That followed accusations that Rodríguez had accepted a bribe in 2001 while still president of Costa Rica.

But Insulza, 62, says the incident 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 Américas in a July 18 interview at OAS headquarters in Washington. "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. That gave him plenty of experience for his current job, which he will hold for the next five years.

"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 thrown out 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.

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."

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