The Washington Diplomat / March 2010
By Larry Luxner
Albert Ramdin has spent the last five years as the number-two man at the Organization of American States. And that's exactly how he plans to spend the next five.
Barring any last-minute surprises, the Surinamese diplomat will be re-elected Mar. 24 as assistant secretary-general of the OAS. His boss will continue to be José Miguel Insulza of Chile.
"I enjoy what I'm doing because I believe in the inter-American system, and I believe the OAS is relevant — despite all the criticism, some of it unfair," Ramdin, 52, told The Washington Diplomat in a one-hour interview Feb. 18.
"I don't think our member countries can do without the OAS," he said. "It is the only political forum where 34 nations can sit around one table and express their interests and reach consensus, even if it's a slow process. There is no other place in the hemisphere like it. The majority of our problems are multilateral in nature, so you cannot solve these problems on your own. You need a multilateral platform."
The OAS currently employs about 700 people, 600 of them at its Washington office and the remainder in 28 field offices throughout the hemisphere. Ramdin agreed with an assessment by Carmen Lomellin, U.S. permanent representative to the OAS, that the organization he helps run is headed for financial disaster.
If money doesn't come in soon to make up a $9.6 million shortfall, he said, "we will have to start dismissing people in an intelligent way. We are already bare-boned in terms of what we can improve. I understand that member states have difficulty with the financial crisis. But at the same time, you cannot give an organization mandates which every country does without attaching a budget and telling me where I'm getting the money from. I personally think we should consider putting a moratorium on mandates; we already have something like 700 of them."
On Mar. 3, Ramdin and Insulza will give a full report to member states on what they've been able to accomplish in the last five years, and what their vision is for the future. That process was made mandatory by a resolution adopted the OAS General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., five years ago.
"Member states have an opportunity until Mar. 24 to present candidates, so it's campaign time," Ramdin said, estimating that he's got 26 or 27 nations backing him. "Speaking for myself, I have support as a Caricom candidate from the 14 Caricom countries, and support from throughout the hemisphere. The United States and Canada are quite satisfied, and I have support from all the Central American countries except Nicaragua — and also from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil and Ecuador.
Ramdin, Insulza's right-hand man at the OAS, was nominated to his current post in July 2003. His 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.
In 2005, when the Diplomat last profiled Ramdin, he said the hemisphere's most pressing issue was security. Now it's Haiti — a country he's traveled to more than 60 times in the past 10 years.
But no trip was like the one he took there in early February, three weeks after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people and destroying the country's already struggling economy.
"We knew the situation was not great, but those images on TV are nothing compared to actually being there, and seeing a country completely collapsed and the devastation on the faces of its people," said Ramdin, who in the disaster's aftermath has been appointed chairman of the OAS Haiti Task Force. "I knew many people who died in the earthquake — ministers, policymakers, friends, family members, their kids. They did not even have time to grieve."
Miraculously, the OAS headquarters in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville was left untouched by the quake, so Ramdin immediately offered it for use by the Haitian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"We are now establishing a Haiti coordinating office. My next visit to Haiti will be to make our OAS office fully operational," he said. "The OAS is not going to be able to finance hundreds of millions in reconstruction. Our role instead will be to assist in strengthening governance and building technical capacity. We will support the electoral process and civil registry, which becomes even more important because so many people have died or moved out of Port-au-Prince. And hundreds of thousands of people have lost their national identity cards."
Another pressing issue for Ramdin is the re-admission of Honduras, following its suspension last July in the wake of the Honduran military's forced ouster of President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, and its installation of Roberto Micheletti in Zelaya's place. The Central American country is quietly returning to normal, now that Zelaya is in the Dominican Republic — and not holed up at the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa — and Porfirio Lobo Sosa is the country's undisputed president, following Nov. 29 elections.
Yet Honduras remains a pariah nation — and will remain so until it is formally readmitted into the OAS.
"If there were a consensus on readmission, it would only be a formality. But clearly there is a different view, because some of the fundamental issues are still not resolved," he explained. "If there is no consensus, it will go to a vote. If Honduras can mobilize 60 percent of the votes, meaning at least 22 countries, then Honduras can be re-admitted. From my perspective, I think conditions should be created to have Honduras returned to the OAS as soon as possible. Until that happens, we cannot provide technical or electoral assistance."
Ramdin concedes that the OAS can learn from its mistakes and "perhaps do better next time" there's a political crisis somewhere in the Americas.
"I think we can do more to pro-actively strengthen democracy," he told the Diplomat. "That means education for democracy programs, and facilitating dialogue in society to mitigate conflict and tension. I believe very much in quiet diplomacy. Once you speak about conflict resolution, you're already too late. We want to avoid that at all costs."