Democracy Behind Closed-Doors: Regional Body Elects Leader US-Style

If the OAS is going to be of any use to the U.S. in promoting its interests in the region, they can’t let just anybody become Secretary-General. Though his election has been heralded by most analysts as the US’ first electoral defeat at the OAS, Chile’s José Miguel Insulza has already pledged his allegiance to Washington.

Condoleezza Rice finished up her Latin American tour over the weekend, just in time to get back to Washington for the “election” of Chilean Interior Minister, José Miguel Insulza to head the Organization of American States (OAS).  It was really more of a confirmation, however, since the actual election took place—in vintage US style—behind the closed doors of Rice’s hotel suite last Friday during the Community of Democracies summit in Santiago de Chile.

The thirty-four member Organization of American States (OAS) has upped the rhetorical ante recently with the passage of a series of commitments to defending democracy in the region.  Yet it has continued to be a poor model of democracy for the region; though each country only gets one vote, the US has traditionally brought considerable economic and political pressure to bear on its fellow members states, with the result that their preferred candidate has never lost an OAS election yet.

Insulza, supported by South America’s “left bloc” including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, and his US-backed competitor, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, were locked in a stalemate that saw five consecutive votes end in a 17-17 draw last month.  The division was a symbolic one, since many assumed a victory for Insulza meant a victory for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—his most active supporter—while a Derbez win would have been synonymous with a US victory.  In an intense round of back-door finagling, however, Rice managed to turn a symbolic loss into a material victory.

Many analysts portrayed the OAS election stalemate as a pitched battle between the US, whose support in the region is in decline, and Hugo Chávez, the hemisphere’s leading US critic.  US-Venezuelan relations have been tense since the US gave tacit (and probably direct) support to a short-lived coup that overthrew Chávez for 47 hours in April, 2002.  These tensions have been heightened recently by an aggressive campaign in the US against the Venezuelan leader, intensified since the beginning of the Bush Administration’s second term late last year.  Insulza’s assumption of the OAS Presidency has, therefore, been interpreted by most analysts as Washington’s first defeat at the OAS, an organization that has historically subordinated itself to US foreign policy in the region.

Drawing such a conclusion would be a mistake, however, given the circumstances in which Insulza won.  Last Friday, after a secretive meeting in Rice’s hotel Suite, Derbez pulled out of the running for OAS President.  During the announcement of Derbez’ decision, Insulza made a short statement that could have been written in Washington, and according to a high-level Rice aide who spoke to reporters later that evening, it nearly was.

After thanking his fellow diplomats, and the good-sported Mexicans in particular, Insulza launched into a brief rundown of his priorities as new President-elect of the OAS.  Two points in particular are striking in that they appear to have been plucked directly from Rice’s own discourse, and that of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“It is indispensable to point out the fundamental value that democratically elected authorities also exercise their mandate in a democratic manner,” said Insulza, adding the threat that “those elected governments who do not govern democratically should answer to the OAS.”

Since the Bush administration’s second term began late last fall, Washington has placed a premium on convincing Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors to pressure Chávez to fall in line.  His loud and frequent denunciations of US imperialism and intervention in the region, his opposition to free-trade, and his close friendship with Cuba have irked Washington since Chávez was first elected in 1998.  Since that time he has emerged victorious from a further 8 electoral contests, making it difficult for the US to fit him into the anti-democratic mould.  But, difficult or no, he must fit all the same.  So in her confirmation hearings before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last January, Rice referred to Chávez as a “democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way.”

Washington’s most recent Venezuela-strategy is based on “containment,” and centers on the US’ hopes to convince the OAS to enact their Democratic Charter against Venezuela, an action that could entail economic and political sanctions.  In an interview last fall with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Rice noted, with respect to Venezuela “we are going to have to, as a hemisphere that signed a democracy charter, be devoted to making sure that those who signed that charter live up to it.”  Just yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega reiterated the point once again, saying “this means that governments must not only be elected democratically, but that they must govern democratically.”

In case Insulza’s paraphrased threat wasn’t indication enough, one of Rice’s aides spelt it out for correspondents traveling with the Secretary.  According to Paul Richter reporting for the LA Times, US officials said Rice had insisted that Insulza make it clear in his announcement that he shared the US’ view that the OAS must hold its members to strict democratic standards.  A Reuters report corroborated this remark, adding that Rice’s aides said Insulza’s comments were directed at Venezuela.

In his brief declaration, Insulza also took a clear stand against the proliferation of light weapons, in an even less subtle reference to Venezuela.  “The effectiveness of inter-American mechanisms for transparency in the acquisition of arms, and the regulation of traffic in small and light arms in the region is especially important,” he said.

Since Venezuela began negotiating a deal with Russia to replace the Venezuelan army’s thirty-year-old Belgian FALs (Light Automatic Rifles) late last year, a veritable chorus of US officials have expressed their outrage, dutifully reproduced by the mainstream American news media.  “I can’t understand why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s,” US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wondered aloud at a press conference during a trip to Brazil last March.  In a telephone interview with the Miami Herald, Rumsfeld appeared to answer his own question, musing philosophically “I guess time will tell,” then having second thoughts, adding “the problem is that, if one waits till time tells, it can be an unhappy story.”

Insulza’s comments made it clear that he would not challenge the US.  But, why did the US back Insulza, even given his friendly comments?  The US could have decided to keep Derbez in the running and force a vote.  While in all likelihood they would have lost, the move would have weakened Insulza’s leadership, and further weakened the OAS itself.  But, with the OAS General Assembly to be held in the US for the first time in thirty years this June, and with a regional strategy that hopes to use multilateral pressure to advance US interests, a strong and credible OAS works in the US’ favor.

Chile’s recent alliance with Venezuela was at least in part related to Venezuela’s vigorous campaigning on Insulza’s behalf.  But Chile—the first Latin American country to sign a free trade agreement with the US—is undeniably closer to Rice et al., than Chávez.  Though the US only threw its support behind Insulza at the 11th hour, Rice’s ventriloquism in Insulza’s premature acceptance speech removes any doubt as to who won Monday’s OAS “election.”  The fact that a predetermined outcome, brought about entirely through Rice’s unselfconscious influence-peddling, is even called an election provides as good an indication as any of the OAS’ feeble commitment to promoting and protecting democracy.  It is only because the last two decades of US foreign policy has seen “democracy promotion” take the place of military intervention and support for US-friendly dictators (for the most part) that there is any excuse for confusion when it comes to the OAS.  But though they talk the democratic talk, so does Bush, and in both cases it is no more than a smokescreen.