JTA / July 26, 2005
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON — José Miguel Insulza, newly appointed secretary-general of the Organization of American States, vows that under his leadership, the 34-member body will do all it can to fight xenophobia, racial discrimination, anti-Semitism and terrorism throughout Latin America.
The Chilean official also says the OAS will have to make some serious administrative, structural and financial changes in order to stay relevant in the 21st century.
"We are all following the AMIA investigation closely," said Insulza, referring to the 1994 bombing of Argentina's largest Jewish organization which killed 85 people and injured over 200.
Insulza, who spoke with JTA last week — on the 11th anniversary of that attack — noted that the OAS has been involved in the case since 1998, when the group Memoria Activa filed a petition with the body's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to force the Argentine government to find those responsible for the attack.
In March, fellow Chilean attorney Claudio Grossman — observer to the IACHR — accused Argentine officials during and since the administration of ex-president Carlos Menem of intentionally misleading investigators probing the attack, believed to be the work of Iranian terrorists connected to Hezbollah.
That led current President Nestor Kirchner to admit for the first time that the Argentine government had in fact covered up key elements of the investigation.
"The OAS is cooperating reasonably well on terrorism matters," said Insulza, interviewed at the organization's Washington headquarters. "Even though we cannot say the hemisphere is free of terrorism, at least we can say that we haven't had many incidents in the last few years."
Insulza noted that the Triple Frontier area — where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet — has long been associated with Islamic fundamentalism, but that "I think the dangers posed by the border area have more to do with smuggling and organized crime than terrorism. We've given all the data we've gathered to the U.S. intelligence agencies, and nothing has really been proven."
Insulza was sworn as secretary-general of the OAS on 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. 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 said. "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."
Insulza will serve his five-year term alongside Albert Ramdin, a widely respected Surinamese diplomat who was elected assistant secretary-general at last month's OAS General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Asked whether his management style will be different from that of previous OAS chiefs, 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."
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.
Dina Siegel-Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute at the American Jewish Committee, says Insulza "has been a very close friend" of Chile's Jewish community, which numbers around 15,000 people.
"AJC met with him several years ago when he was foreign minister. We've always found him receptive to our concerns, and he's someone who understands the importance of having a strong Jewish community in Chile," she told JTA.
Siegel-Vann added "if there are violations of human rights in the hemisphere, or if the rights of minorities — not only Jews — are endangered, we should weigh in and push the OAS to take actions to make sure this doesn't happen."
The OAS was formed in April 1948 and currently has 34 members. In addition, 46 nations ranging from Azerbaijan to Israel 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.
On the whole, 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.
The AJC's Siegel-Vann said that "despite the very dire challenges that it's facing — not only structurally but also what's going on throughout the region — the OAS has an opportunity to act as a catalyst for greater unity and integration within the hemisphere. We hope it will be able to mobilize its resources in order to address the three most important pillars of its work: security, democracy and human rights, and the fight against poverty."
Asked about anti-Semitism in Chile, Insulza told JTA that as interior minister, he played a key role in preventing a recent neo-Nazi congress from taking place in Chiile several years ago. He said he was also instrumental in disbanding Colonia Dignidad, a Nazi-run commune in southern Chile whose leaders sexually abused childen and adults.
"We've had [anti-Semitic] incidents, but the last one was about three years ago, and the time before was three years before that," said Insulza.
"Just to be fair, you know that in Chile we have the largest Palestinian population in the world outside the Middle East, and we have never had one violent confrontation between Jews and Arabs. There have been racially motivated incidents, and swastikas in some synagogues, but I don't recall any violence in recent years."