The Washington Diplomat / August 2009
By Larry Luxner
It seems the stodgy old Organization of American States has grabbed more headlines in the last two months than it's generated in the last two decades — thanks to a dramatic debate over OAS membership for Cuba and the subsequent coup in Honduras.
Yet the jury is still out on whether this 34-member club of nations — controlled for most of its 62 years by the United States — has really become a force to be reckoned with, or remains a toothless tiger out of touch with reality.
"The OAS has struggled for years to figure out how to make itself relevant in hemispheric relations, when so much of that is dominated by the U.S. relationship with Latin America," said Daniel Erikson, senior associate for U.S. policy at Inter-American Dialogue, a local think tank.
"In the past few months, the OAS has been very successful at positioning itself at the center of important hemspheric debates," Erikson told The Washington Diplomat. "They really picked up where the Summit of the Americas [last April in Trinidad] left off, reincorporating Cuba back into the hemisphere. And then at the end of June, we had this coup in Honduras, which automatically led to a consensus to reject the interim government's legitimacy and call for the reinstatement of President [Manuel] Zelaya."
At the center of this newly charged OAS is José Miguel Insulza, elected secretary-general in May 2005. The 66-year-old former Chilean foreign minister is no stranger to coups d'etat, having been forced into exile for 15 years following the overthrow of Chile's democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, by Gen. Augusto Pinochét.
"A military coup is a rape of democracy," he declared in no uncertain terms. "The overthrow of governments by force is a setback — not only for the country that suffers it, but also for the whole region, which is why it cannot be allowed to happen. In Latin America, this rape of democracy happened often until only a few decades ago. It still seems shameful to remember."
In a sometimes emotional speech to a packed audience July 16 at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Insulza recalled how, in 1954 — as a 10-year-old boy growing up in Chile — he was in bed with the flu, reading Spanish-language editions of Life magazine to pass the time.
"A full-page photo caught my attention. It was a picture of the deposed president of Guatemala, José Arbenz, being forced to take off his clothes in an airport before going into exile," he said. "Military coups not only depose people but humiliate them as well. Many of us, including present heads of state, have personal memories of this and have decided we'll never let it happen again."
He added: "If you want to improve the quality of democracy and correct all of its defects, don't try to justify the rape of democracy. You don't rape a democracy to save it! So when a coup occurs, you must denounce it as a very serious crime, not legitimize the perpetrator. And that's exactly what we did."
On June 28 — only hours after troops stormed the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa, forcibly removing the pajama-clad Zelaya and forcing him onto a plane bound for Costa Rica — the OAS condemned the action without any qualifications.
"We did this to make sure nobody would recognize the coup leaders," said Insulza. "The result of this action was that no government in the world has recognized the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti."
Then on July 5, the OAS General Assembly suspended Honduras, invoking for the first time ever Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The unusual assembly was attended by three heads of state: Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo and Zelaya himself.
"This is a very peculiar moment in the history of the Americas," the deposed president told the gathering that day, before dramatically attempting — and failing — to fly back to his country in a Venezuelan aircraft. "The Honduran people have lived already six days of repression. You, by raising your voice, are giving hope to the Americas, and hope to the suffering people of Honduras."
Insulza had planned to accompany Zelaya to Tegucigalpa, along with Argentina's Kirchner, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador — but then thought better of it.
"We learned the runway was blocked, so it was clear we could not go," he said. "Some people suggested we should start flying to Honduras anyway, then go someplace else, but I said I couldn't do that because I did not have OAS backing."
In the ensuing weeks, many voices have been raised in support of Zelaya — and just as many in support of those who deposed him. They say Zelaya tried to hold a dubious referendum on constitutional reform, which was part of a Chávez-style power grab later declared illegal by the Honduran Supreme Court.
Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica's former ambassador to the United States and Latin American director of the conservative Hudson Institute, angrily accuses the OAS of "abdicating its moral responsibility" and rejecting a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Tegucigalpa.
"Under Insulza's erratic and politicized leadership, the OAS has pursued a highly ideological agenda and lost sight of its original raison d'ętre," said Daremblum, writing in The Weekly Standard."The organization has expended huge amounts of energy to lift a 47-year-old ban on Cuban membership, yet has done very little to protest the creation of a dictatorship in Venezuela. Insulza's response to the Honduran crisis revealed his double standard: After staying silent on Chávez, he flew into a rage when Honduran authorities acted to defend their democracy from a power-hungry president who was willing to break the law and trample the democratic process."
Added columnist Andrés Oppenheimer, writing July 17 in the Miami Herald: "While the OAS is rightly denouncing the coup against Zelaya, there are growing questions about why it hasn't said a word about the coup against Antonio Ledezma in Venezuela," Oppenheimer wrote in a July 17 article.
Ledezma is the opposition mayor of Venezuela's capital, Caracas, who was elected by a landslide in November 2008. Yet after his victory, Chávez effectively ignored the election results by creating a position of "super-mayor" of Caracas, appointing a loyalist to the new job and stripping Ledezma of 93 percent of his budget and all but 6,000 of his 22,000-member workforce.
In his article, Oppenheimer questioned whether Insulza is "turning a blind eye on transgressions" by Chávez and other strongmen because he needs their votes to win a new term as OAS leader, as some critics have suggested.
"It's ridiculous to see Chávez and his friends make fiery speeches in support of democracy in Honduras, when they themselves are killing it daily in their home countries," Oppenheimer concluded. "If the OAS doesn't expand its Democratic Charter, Latin America will be increasingly more authoritarian, and the OAS will become — like Ledezma said — a mutual protection club for power-hungry presidents."
Nonsense, retorts Insulza, who equates supporters of the coup against Zelaya with those who make excuses for rapists.
"As with all rapes, there's always someone with impeccable democratic credentials who's willing to say that the victim brought it upon herself," the OAS leader pointed out. "Yes, she was raped, but what was she doing there? Why was she dressed that way? Yes, he was pushed out of office, but he was trying to change the constitution illegally."
On the other hand, Insulza also admits that more could have been done.
"We have a good early-warning system, but we knew what was going on. Probably I should have made the decision to get involved not a week before the coup, but several weeks before," he conceded. "We all went to the General Assembly [in San Pedro Sula] a month before, and even though there was a lot of political tension then, it's hard to imagine what would happen a month later."
For the time being, Costa Rica's president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias is acting as mediator between Zelaya and the government headed by Micheletti.
"Formally, Arias is negotiating as the president of Costa Rica, as requested by the OAS — and as president of the Inter-American Integration System," said Insulza, noting that by pure coincidence, Arias became president of SICA — as the organization is known in Spanish — the very day after the coup in Honduras.
"It's very common that we ask personalities in the hemisphere to do that. In most crises, we've had some relevant personalities leading the effort, not the secretary-general," he said. "It's not an unusual situation."
Asked by a member of the audience if the organization is effectively doing Chávez's bidding, Insulza chose his words carefully.
"There's still a certain movement to create an alternative, something different from the OAS, which I'm sure will not succeed," he responded. "President Chávez is not that big a fan of the OAS, but I agree with Sen. Kerry when he said the issue here is Honduras, not Venezuela. Zelaya is supported by all members of the OAS. To some extent, this is not their case, this is a cause of the whole region."
Peter Kornbluh, a director at Washington's nonprofit National Security Archive, says it's obvious that under Insulza, the OAS has flexed its institutional assertiveness. "As to his degree of success, that depends on where you stand," he told The Diplomat."They made a huge effort — ironically in Honduras — on the Cuba issue, to the point where the U.S. is now rejecting Insulza for his next term as secretary-general. Under Insulza, the OAS has gotten under the skin of even a liberal administration."
According to Kornbluh, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hinted privately that the White House won't support Insulza's candidacy in 2010 because he pushed so hard to readmit communist Cuba into the OAS, from which it had been suspended in 1962.
Erikson of Inter-American Dialogue said that the organization's new assertiveness effectively began in 2002, when it strongly condemned an attempted coup against Chávez. That new muscle was very much in evidence at the OAS meeting in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when the group's 34 members unanimously voted to rescind Cuba's suspension.
"At the end of the day, the outcome of the meeting on Cuba was managed relatively well. The OAS successfully reached a consensus resolution on Cuba, which had been very much in doubt beforehand. They proved they could serve as a multilateral forum for discussion."
"In the case of Honduras, the OAS has faced greater challenges. There was a consensus to reject the coup, but the OAS hasn't brought about any resolution, and it ultimately outsourced the role of mediator to Oscar Arias. This could have been an opportunities for the OAS, or for Insulza personally, to play a major role. But now, following the initial suspension of Honduras, the OAS has been relegated to the sidelines."
Insulza, who speaks to Arias every day, says he's "cautiously optimistic" that progress will be made on restoring Zelaya to the presidency.
"Zelaya said he will not insist on constitutional reform, but leave it for the next govenrment. Some people have spoken about moving the election forward. I don't think there's much insistence on that. President Arias needs to reach some kind of blueprint, and that will take time. But the first thing is to find out if there's some room for agreement."
Erikson is a lot less optimistic.
"Personally, I think it'll be extremely difficult," he told The Diplomat, suggesting it's all about who has the most to lose.
"The major political actors in Honduras have united around preventing Zelaya's return, and the international community is united in calling for his reinstatement," he said. "Ultimately, it'll be the internal actors in Honduras who will fight harder to keep him out than the international community will fight to put him back."