Américas / October 2005
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON — Ever since he was a teenager growing up in Suriname, Albert Ramdin 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.
From there, Ramdin went on to become his country's ambassador to the OAS and an advisor to former OAS Secretary General César Gaviria. More recently, he has been special advisor to the Surinamese government on Western Hemisphere affairs.
On June 7, Ramdin was elected assistant secretary-general of the OAS by foreign ministers gathered for the General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He succeeded U.S. diplomat Luigi Einaudi, a former State Department official, and, like Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, will serve for the next five years.
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.
"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 points out that Suriname 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."
Ramdin said that as a relatively unknown country, it's 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."
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.
"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."