The Organization of American States (OAS) is the most important institution in the Western Hemisphere. It comprises 35 States, including the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Formally, it was born on April 20, 1948, yet its roots can be traced back to the First Conference of American States in 1889-1890. The OAS is an umbrella under which Pan-American relations develop in a number of fields including health, agriculture, security, human rights, democracy, elections, trade, etc.

The OAS has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and historically has been perceived by Latin American and Caribbean countries as an instrument of the American interests within the region. Yet, the United States provides more than half of the OAS budget. For the fiscal year of January 1 to December 31, 2019, the OAS had a budget of $83 million of which the United States was required to provide 51 million or 61 percent.

Originally conceived as a way of promoting a high level political dialogue, the United States and Canada joined the OAS during the Cold War with the aim of halting the spread of communism within the region.

The institution has faced several problems throughout its more than 70 years. One of the most important obstacles for succeeding in establishing a common agenda in the Americas is the existing imbalance between one of its members and the rest of the participants. Another one is the fact that, because the OAS is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and most of the countries in the region have embassies and diplomatic representations in the same city, most of them prefer to advance their interests through their diplomatic missions to the U.S. rather than the OAS.

Divisions and rivalries between Latin American and Caribbean countries take a toll when it comes to counterbalancing the American influence and interests within the region. Mexico and Brazil have had a historic rivalry in terms of defining who the Latin America leader is, and also because both have pursued a privileged relationship with Washington. As a result, and because of geopolitical and geographic realities, Mexico has taken most of the attention the U.S. pays to Latin America, whereas Brazil has become a de facto leader or big brother in South America. Brazil also tends to portray Mexico to South American audiences as a puppet of Washington in Latin America. Mexico normally dismisses Brazilian leadership attempts in Latin America by arguing its culture and language differ substantially from most of the countries within the region.

Controversies surrounding the OAS

Cuba is a contentious issue within the OAS. In 1962 the country was suspended from OAS after proclaiming itself as “Marxist-Leninist.” The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with the Fidel Castro regime and prompted Latin American countries to replicate Washington’s stance on Cuba. Yet, during the Obama Administration, Cuba and the United States reestablished diplomatic ties and both Obama and the Cuban leader Raúl Castro met in 2015 on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas. Previously in 2009, the OAS General Assembly voted unanimously to lift the suspension of Cuba, paving the way for the island to return to the Inter-American system. Until now, however, Cuba has not rejoined the OAS.

Military cooperation within the Western Hemisphere has also been controversial. The Rio Treaty that led to the establishment of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR) in 1947, was aimed, purposely, to protecting the Americas from the “Soviet threat” during the Cold Wear. Yet, TIAR was used to perform a naval blockade against Cuba during the 50’s and 60’s and, during the Malvinas War between Argentina and the United Kingdom, the United States sided with London against Buenos Aires, a situation highly criticized by Latin American countries. In fact, in September 2001 Mexico announced it would withdraw from TIAR and left in 2002. Other countries followed, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Accomplishments made by OAS

Some landmarks in the history of the OAS includes the birth of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in 1959, as well as the launching of the Alliance for Progress in 1961, both as a response to the Cuban Revolution. In 1991 it was agreed that the secretary general of the institution should react within ten days in case a coup d’état develops in any member country. In December 1994, on the occasion of the First Summit of the Americas, the creation of a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas was announced. In 2009, Honduras was suspended when a coup ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Most recently, the OAS has exerted pressure on Venezuela, for failing to comply with the respect of political and self-determination rights of the population so that a democratic government can be elected. President Nicolás Maduro has challenged the OAS due to what he considers interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs and initiated the process to withdraw from the organization.

Despite criticism against the OAS and its dominance by the United States, the institution has provided a number of critical dialogue and cooperation mechanisms to address relevant issues. For instance, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), based in Washington D. C., is a key player in dealing with health and public sanitation. The Interamerican Human Rights Commission (IHRC) provides human rights monitoring in the region and advises the OAS in this field. Together with the Interamerican Court of Human Rights (IACHR), it examines complaints and petitions regarding specific human rights violations.

The Secretary General

The secretary general is the leading political representative of the OAS. In the history of the institution 11 diplomats have led the OAS, all men. Of them, two have been Colombian, two Uruguayan, two Chilean, one Ecuadorian, one Argentinian, one Brazilian, one American and one Costa Rican. Mexico has never led the organization. The secretary general is elected for a term of five years and can be re-elected. The current secretary general is the former Minister for Foreign Affairs for Uruguay, Luis Almagro, whose term is about to expire (he arrived at the post on May 26, 2015). Next March 20, either Almagro will be re-elected – he wishes to remain in the position – or someone else will arrive.

Hugo de Zéla

In addition to Almagro, there are currently two other candidates: María Fernanda Espinosa, the former foreign minister of Ecuador and the Peruvian Ambassador to the U.S., Hugo de Zéla. Normally governments support their candidates but this time two out of three candidacies are not endorsed by their respective governments: neither Almagro nor Espinosa are supported by Uruguay and Ecuador respectively. The only candidate who is supported by his country of origin is De Zéla.

This unusual situation leads to an unreliable forecast. Before leading the OAS, Almagro was foreign minister of Uruguay where he championed the support of refugees and orchestrated with the José Mujica government the welcome of dozens of Syrians who escaped violence in their homeland. He was also instrumental in the transfer of former prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Uruguay. Then, on March 18, 2015, he was elected by 33 of 34 member states as secretary general. During his term, he has been very active in the electoral process in Haiti; the fight against corruption in Honduras; the call for democratic elections in Venezuela; the strengthening of democratic institutions in Nicaragua; and, most recently, the downfall of Evo Morales after elections where Morales, it is presumed, intended to stay in power despite a number of electoral irregularities documented by the OAS.

María Fernanda Espinosa

To some countries, Almagro should continue as secretary general. The United States has endorsed his candidacy, together with Colombia. These governments like Almagro’s despising of left-wing governments -o r at least that’s what Washington and Bogota thinks. This paves the way for the support of Brazil’s Bolsonaro. This means that countries with which Almagro has collided for different reasons – such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and, most important, Mexico -who has provided support for Evo Morales and members of is government- won’t vote for him.

Please bear in mind that any candidate, in order to become secretary general, requires 18 votes. As suggested before, Tabaré Vázquez, president of Uruguay, has not endorsed Almagro’s candidacy and he has stated that other countries and personalities should participate in the renewal of the OAS leadership. Then comes María Fernanda Espinosa, who faces a similar scenario because her native Ecuador doesn’t support her candidacy, which instead has been propelled by small Caribbean countries such as Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. She may be getting support from other countries, possibly Argentina. The credentials of Espinosa are nevertheless impressive: she was elected back in 2018 as president of the United Nations General Assembly, thus becoming the first Latin American woman to hold that position. Previously she has been foreign minister twice and minister of defense in Ecuador.

If elected to the OAS Espinosa would become the first woman in the history of the organization to lead it. Yet, Espinosa is not well-liked by central and/or liberal governments in the region, because she is considered a left-wing politician, married to Eduardo Mangas, a Nicaraguan who previously served in the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega. Lenin Moreno, currently president of Ecuador, and despite being considered a centrist-left wing politician, has moved closely to the right and has sought to improve his country’s relationship with the U.S. Following a visit of the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Ecuador in 2018, Moreno approved a number of initiatives including the purchase of arms and a weapons system from the Americans and, more importantly, he withdrew protection provided to Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, who had been granted political asylum in August 2012 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London by then President Rafael Correa. Thus, on April 11, 2019, Assange was arrested by the British police. Having this background in mind, Moreno is not able to support Espinosa at this critical juncture.

Finally, the third candidate, the only one whose candidacy has been endorsed by his own government ,is the Peruvian diplomat Hugo De Zela. Considering that Almagro is well-liked by the U.S. and that Espinosa is seen as a leftist, the bet of Peru is that Hugo De Zela could become an intermediate option in case neither of the former gets the required 18 votes. How would Mexico vote? Most probably for Espinosa, but if this threatens to create frictions with the United States, then De Zela could be a safer bet for the Lopez Obrador Government.

The debate on the election of the secretary general of the OAS has become more complex due to a highly divided region, with Bolsonaro to the right, Mexico to the left -or something like that – and, in between, countries that need to sort out a number of problems. Demonstrations in Chile, Haiti, Colombia, etc., last year showed societies tired of politics as usual. Most countries tend to look indoors and may be prioritizing domestic over international affairs – with few exceptions, as Argentina’s Alberto Fernández has shown. This means countries don’t seem eager to getting involved in a never-ending debate over who is best equipped to lead the OAS. Most of the region may want this election to develop fast and without much fuss.

Needless to say, the U.S. will have presidential elections this year. Even though the Trump Administration has criticized the OAS among other things for advocating for the legalization of abortion, and has even threatened to cut its financial contributions for the organization, he doesn’t need a major crisis in the Western Hemisphere that may distract him from his most important goal – say, re-election. Thus, the sooner the “OAS file” is solved, the better. Yet, again, critics of the OAS may claim that this is business as usual, with the U.S. deciding what’s best for the region, even though the region disagrees.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States.