OAS’ and Chile’s Jose Miguel Insulza

Insulza’s role thus far has been at best gradualist and transitional, with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez casting a far stronger influence over the process than the Secretary General, as well as more constantly promoting the ideas and rhetoric of the next generation.

Marching To the Beat of a Different Drummer: Infusing the Organization of American States with Some Teutonic Culture

It has been two years since Chilean socialist politician, and 2009 presidential hopeful, Jose Miguel Insulza, took over the helm of the Organization of American States (OAS) as Secretary General. In that relatively short time frame, he has spearheaded efforts to increase the organization’s political leverage as well as produce a change in its orientation and tone. This has meant crafting a more professional environment featuring a new hemispheric policy that is less U.S.-influenced. Instead, it largely encompasses the interests and aspirations of a new wave of Latin American leaders, with which a conservative White House has had its disagreements, especially with left-leaning Venezuela. While debate over sovereignty remains at the center of the use of the organization by its member states, Secretary General Insulza has ebulliently embarked on the path of guiding the OAS in a period of transformation. As Latin America increasingly exerts its independence from a “made in the U.S.A.” lock-step policy-making process, the question arises as to which national or regional figure will be the carrier of such change.

Insulza’s contested election to the position (opposed by the U.S. for his stance on Iraq and his professed socialism) as the hemispheric body’s Secretary General, and his forceful personality that he uses selectively to help shape the Inter-American agenda, may reflect a turning point in how the organization’s potential to serve authentic Latin American interests is maximized. The opportunity for such a shift was fortuitously made possible by Washington’s obsession over Iraq. Because of that total immersion, Latin America began to have a receding place in the minds of U.S. policymakers, which for many in the region turned out to be a total relief.

The Election Tango
Upon the unanticipated resignation of OAS Secretary General Miguel Angel Rodriguez in October 2004, due to corruption charges while president of Costa Rica, the OAS General Assembly decided to schedule a vote to elect a new secretary general before its annual meeting in June 2005. A special session of the OAS General Assembly met in early April to choose a new head, but five rounds of voting ended in a stalemate between the two favored candidates – Chile’s then Interior Minister, Jose Miguel Insulza and Mexico’s Foreign Minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez. Central America’s candidate, former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores Perez, withdrew from the race after failing to secure sufficient backing, even though he initially had some support for the position, most importantly, from Washington. The Mexican candidate also eventually withdrew on April 29, due to his failure to generate enough of a commitment in favor of his candidacy, and after spirited negotiations among the Mexican, Chilean, and U.S. delegations, Insulza emerged as the winner by default. He assumed the OAS Secretary General position on May 2, 2005 with a vote of 31 in favor, two abstentions (presumed to be Mexico and Bolivia), and one vote left blank (announced by Peru).

Learning the Steps and How to Lead: Insulza’s Challenges and Goals

The new OAS Secretary General’s foremost challenge has been to restore the organization’s credibility after its image was badly marred by previous secretariat scandals and Insulza’s own somewhat cloudy election to the post, after the political shenanigans of the 2005 secretary general contest were registered. The newly elected leader also needed to overcome the organization’s traditional policymaking impotence and its ritualistic lethargy, which only incrementally improved over the past several decades. In other words, the situation required Insulza to buttress the political, economic, and social influence of the OAS as the kingpin of the Inter-American system. As the famed Open Democracy Mexican analyst Sergio Aguayo Quezada so felicitously observed at the beginning of his term, “Insulza takes control of the Organization of American States at a critical period in its history. It is an organization whose most solid tradition is its irrelevance. If that is to change, Insulza must make certain that governments and foreign ministries throughout the hemisphere – including the White House and the U.S. State Department – take it seriously.”

But, Insulza does not only have the OAS’ improvement as a whole on his mind – he also has personal ambitions of his own. It is important to note that Insulza is not only the major regional figure but also insists on being a major political player back in Chile. Insulza sees himself as the next president of Chile but is up against a number of tiresome obstacles. He is a Socialist, as have been the current President Michelle Bachelet, and the preceding one, Ricardo Lagos. The Socialist Party is not the largest member of Concertación, the country’s ruling party. Logically, the largest member of that group is the Christian Democrats. As a result, Insulza feels it necessary to make frequent trips back to Chile in order to rally the crowd and remind leading politicians there that he is not a potted plant and does not intend to be overlooked in the presidential sweepstake. Meanwhile, a number of Chile’s politicians—even leading figures of the Socialist Party—are beginning to look upon him as something of a pest. It is no wonder that Insulza is known as the “Panzer” for his hard-driving and relentless style which is now focused on personal political opportunism.

Upon assuming office, Insulza was faced with the daunting task of re-establishing the organization’s usefulness in the eyes of the member state governments (both North and South of the Rio Grande) as the principal hemispheric policy forum. Insulza must also persuade them to provide greater financial support to the organization’s lackluster budget in order to guarantee ongoing mandates. Traditionally, Latin America has held a double standard when it came to funding the OAS; they united to have the best seats in the forum but desired that the bill be sent to Washington. As long as the U.S. quota payment for funding the organization is unusually large (hovering around 60% of the total) and Latin America unreasonably small (with some paying as little as 0.02%), the region will get what it pays for.

On a much grander scale, Insulza faces the challenge of redefining the OAS as an important policy-making organization capable of bridging the growing left-right political divide and a rising level of polarization. Within a tense atmosphere of general mistrust among much of the body, Insulza must figure out how to rebuild consensus and mutual confidence among members who participate in an arena that is supposed to have such principles at its operational core.

In his inaugural address to the Permanent Council on May 26, 2005, the new OAS Secretary General identified his hemispheric priorities as: “consolidating our democracies and strengthening democratic governance; protecting human rights; advancing the consensus that integral development is more than just economic growth; and carving out a policy of multidimensional security.” He pledged to strengthen the organization’s political relevance and its capacity for action in order to transform the institution’s role from that of a largely dormant forum for ostensibly shared values and principles, into a more empowered hemispheric policymaker. At the same meeting of the OAS body, Insulza also stressed that in order to overcome the organization’s historical problem of irrelevance, “a renewed political resolve is needed from the member states to make the OAS a more effective institution, with a targeted agenda whose priorities are decided by consensus.”

Throughout the last two years, Insulza has adamantly emphasized enhancing “democratic governance” in the hemisphere, specifically pointing to the application of the much-lauded Inter-American Democratic Charter as the key to improved political, economic, social, and cultural society in the Americas. Furthermore, Insulza also has heavily pushed for the OAS to strengthen its social agenda in order to ensure that institutional reforms contained in the General Assembly’s resolutions and declarations are trickling down to the average citizens who need the benefits the most. In other words, one of the most important visions of the new OAS Secretary General has been for the OAS to have more meaning, worth, and impact for the peoples of the Americas.

Facing the Music: The Grand Evaluation
So, two years later, the question that arises is: “Has Insulza done it?” Has the OAS been reinvigorated, reformed, and revitalized through his leadership as Secretary General? A response might be that this is a work in progress, potentially headed in the right direction, at least for some of the Latin American member states, as long as Insulza’s ego is not allowed to derail him. Insulza’s admirers will say that from the beginning he has refused to serve as a puppet of the U.S., although the opportunities for such independent-mindedness haven’t been all that many. Others will say that he pulled the strings for Uncle Sam’s efforts to quell Hugo Chavez. Nevertheless, Latin Americans have begun to make some strides of their own in exerting their political will and making the OAS better able to serve their societies.

It should be noted that since Insulza’s election marked the first time in the organization’s 60 year history that Washington’s preferred candidate did not win the post, it could be assumed that some changes in the organization’s direction and focus and the type of issues prioritized on its agenda were to be expected. According to Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, a Power and Interest Report analyst, Insulza’s election “reflects far deeper shifts in the balance of power in the hemisphere that spell declining influence for the U.S. over the long term, signaled at present by the rise of Brazil as a regional power center in South America and the bid by Venezuela to become a ‘small major power’ committed to building a mixed cooperativist-capitalist economy and diminishing Washington’s power in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Insulza’s tenure may usher in a new era in which the voices of Latin American member states are the loudest ones to be heard in the Hall of the Americas. His political title not withstanding, the secretary general’s clout cannot even approach that of such a Brobadingian figure like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Such a departure would signal an alteration of the organization’s six decades of dominance by the North American superpower and its normal function as a vehicle for the U.S. to achieve its regional desiderata.

Following the Latin Beat
It can be argued that Secretary General Insulza has been reasonably influential in steering the OAS agenda along the policy-making preferences of most Latin American member states, including those identified as “left-leaning,” who are pressing for more social issues to be addressed that would grant civil liberties to specific demographic units of populations previously marginalized by the region’s power structure. It is through such measures as the draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (proposed in 2004 shortly before Insulza took office, but which is currently being energetically negotiated by the member states due in part to his intervention on its behalf) that the OAS members are addressing some of the prime issues relating to human rights and the strengthening of relevant hemispheric mechanisms to achieve greater equality and justice. This declaration seeks to guarantee greater political, social, and economic inclusion of the hemisphere’s 40 million indigenous people in their respective community settings. Insulza stated in his 2005 inaugural address that the signing of this declaration is a priority for the OAS member states since, “it will promote respect for the dignity of our native peoples and their active participation in a tolerant and pluralistic world that recognizes their unique and specific rights.”

Another social issue on the Latin American member states’ agenda is the alleviation of extreme poverty and correcting such distortions as the grossly unequal distribution of wealth, which continues to plague Latin American countries despite unprecedented growth in some sectors of the economy. It is for these reasons that Latin American leaders also have worked diligently to draft the Social Charter of the Americas, an innovative and progressive document on social inclusion and civil rights such as those relating to education, healthcare, and employment. Insulza fully supports the draft charter and is particularly proud of the negotiations that were initiated under his tenure, especially since he had initially announced a strong desire to expand the OAS’ social agenda. Insulza has voiced his opinion on the Social Charter initiative as a complementary extension to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, initiatives which together will guarantee “political citizenship–the right to participate in a free and democratic political system, civil citizenship—and also addresses social citizenship: the right to enjoy the benefits of development.”

One area in which a clear divide can be seen between the beliefs of the Latin American member states and the U.S. is in Inter-American security. Insulza, along with many Latin American states, has been working on redefining security threats beyond the blanket of “global terrorism,” which the U.S. government is currently focused on. Insulza hopes to expand the definition to include internal domestic threats such as drug trafficking, transnational organized crime, arms and human trafficking and extraterrestrial threats such as natural disasters which also gravely threaten the political stability of area governments and the sustainability of their civil societies.

While the U.S. focuses on the supply side of illicit drug production, Latin American states have questioned its demand and the proliferation of the drug culture regionally and globally. Violence and fear of transnational youth gangs are also pressing issues for the region, and the siege of natural disasters which have adversely affected the Inter-American region within the past decade have also brought the necessity of improved prevention and mitigation measures to the forefront of the hemispheric agenda. The organization’s new emphasis on multidimensional security is also evidenced by Insulza’s restructuring of the OAS’s internal organs through his creation of the Department of Public Security in order to address the above issues.

Additionally, while the U.S. preoccupies itself with debates on military involvement in Iraq, Insulza has recently brought the military branch of the organization, the Inter-American Defense Board, under civilian command by incorporating it directly into the OAS, perhaps learning a lesson from Latin America’s ghastly experiences with military rule in the 1970s and 1980s. While largely symbolic, the importance of this move should not be minimized.

It All Comes Back to Democracy
Jose Miguel Insulza’s most important achievements as OAS Secretary General are connected to the organization’s longtime devotion to the promotion of democracy and the strengthening of democratic governance – a concept originally defined and lead by the U.S. The concept is now being championed with altered expectations throughout the hemisphere and various extensions in the autonomy and political pluralism on the part of Latin American leaders. The organization’s core tenet regarding the promotion of representative democracy still holds strong, but faces some reevaluation in the twenty-first century as Insulza has called for strengthened application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed in 2001 and the exploration of newfound social and economic issues surrounding and profoundly affecting the political nature of democracy (such as through the adoption of new norms and principles discussed in the draft Social Charter of the Americas).

However, the pride and joy of the organization’s operations (and the example most often pointed to when its capacity to come forth with practical results and its value beyond rhetoric and dialogue is questioned), is rooted in its overarching principle of democracy, specifically the electoral observation missions it conducts throughout Latin America. With the busiest democratic electoral season ever known to the hemisphere in 2006, when 16 member states held elections, Insulza has the most concrete proof of the OAS’s success as a monitoring body since his term as Secretary General commenced. Granted, this may largely be the result of the groundwork set by his predecessors, who worked tirelessly amid the changing political dynamics of the region, which have just coalesced within the past few years. The success of the organization’s visible presence in legitimizing these democratic elections that have occurred, without a hitch, in over half of the OAS member states — all in the span of one year — is an impressive feat.

Nevertheless, as the secretary general himself has noted, while the hemisphere has made improvements in the promotion of democracy as its preferred political system, it still needs to immensely improve its democratic governance and the overall enforcement of the rule of law. One issue pertaining to a persisting malaise is that of corruption, which OAS member states continue to struggle with at an unacceptable pace and lack of seriousness, as exemplified by the circumstances surrounding the unanticipated resignation of Insulza’s immediate predecessor. Throughout his tenure, Insulza has pushed for anti-corruption measures to be placed at the top of the OAS political agenda and in the forefront of national policy. The Inter-American Convention Against Corruption and its Follow Up Mechanism for Implementation (for which Insulza has almost single-handily run a campaign for its signature and comprehensive application by member state governments) has played an important role in ensuring that regional governmental leaders uphold the democratic traditions of transparency and accountability.

Insulza also has continuously encouraged the active involvement by the OAS in the political, economic, and social reconstruction of Haiti–the hemisphere’s poorest and most politically unstable nation–by means of the OAS’s association with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). But Insulza is not without vulnerabilities in this respect. While ferociously campaigning for the OAS post, and fearing that he might fall short of a winning margin, he traveled to Haiti, along with Chile’s outgoing President Ricardo Lagos, to shamelessly court U.S. puppet and interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, in order to gain Port-au-Prince’s vote. In his address at the 35th Regular Session of the OAS General Assembly in June 2005, Insulza advocated “a longstanding commitment to development and democracy-building” on the Caribbean island. He has also praised the tainted role of the OAS in joint cooperation with the UN and the Provisional Government of Haiti to initiate democratic elections which eventually installed Rene Préval as President in 2006. In fact, MINUSTAH played a very compromised role in Haiti, and the UN-OAS sanctioning of Washington’s ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide was anything but a moment of high honor for the organization.

Contentious Partners with Two Left Feet
Despite his ability to push for a more Latin American-centered agenda within the organization, Insulza has not been without contention among regional leaders, incurring some intense resistance from them for his interventionist tactics, his most notable critic being Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Even though Chavez backed Insulza’s candidacy as head of the OAS from the beginning, the two men have butted heads at various points throughout the last six months, due to clashing opinions on the appropriateness of the OAS General Secretariat’s rather officious commentary on Venezuelan domestic affairs (which Chavez sneeringly dismissed). In early January of this year, Insulza criticized Chavez’s initial announcement of his decision not to renew the broadcasting license of Venezuela’s oldest and most popular station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). Insulza vocally expressed concerns that Chavez’s actions gave the appearance of “a form of censorship against freedom of expression.” The OAS Secretary General was worried about the future political repercussions that such a measure could have in the region, declaring, “the closing of a mass communications outlet is a rare step in the history of our hemisphere and has no precedent in the recent decades of democracy.”

Upon hearing these comments, the Venezuelan government lapsed into a state of rage, accusing Insulza of meddling in the country’s internal affairs, and accused him of a serious breach of the organization’s charter which strictly prohibits intervention in a member state’s internal affairs, especially by an OAS official whose job description demands impartiality and fair and equal treatment of all OAS members. However, Insulza countered that “on the one hand, the existence of a large number of media outlets is what allows for the widest diversity of opinions to be expressed; and on the other, if an illegal act has been committed, the appropriate path to take in a democracy is to bring charges against the presumed perpetrators within the justice system” — not to silence them permanently through questionable means. What Insulza did not mention was that during the first Christian Democratic-led Frei government in Chile (1964-1970), an “insult law” was passed that allowed for the jailing of anyone defaming a government official. Additionally, Insulza has not commented on a recent controversial supreme court ruling in Mexico to prohibit the automatic renewal of TV and radio concessions, forcing broadcasting monopolies there to reapply for their licenses. Nor did he refer to the discussion of possible government restrictions on press freedom in Honduras.

The arguments on both sides of the issue are still debatable, and contention between Chavez and Insulza continues at a simmering boil, especially in light of the expiration and non-renewal of RCTV’s license. Within the same week that Chavez pulled the plug on RCTV, Insulza again issued a warning against silencing political opponents in his opening remarks at the 37th OAS General Assembly held in Panama on June 3-5. Diverging from the gathering’s main focus on “energy for sustainable development,” Insulza openly declared to the delegates present that “the first duty of a democratic government is broadening democracy. By contrast, if a government is silencing opponents, excludes them from the political process and resorts to repression, it embarks on a path toward certain weakening of democratic rule.” This remark was obviously directed towards Venezuela’s Chavez in light of his recent action against RCTV. By any measure, Insulza’s insinuation was not warranted by the facts and was an intolerable intervention in Venezuela’s personal affairs. One central fact that Insulza patently ignored was, that by its actions of helping to stage a coup against a constitutional government and by attempting to suppress the news that the coup had failed, RCTV operator Marcel Granier and his station were not encouraging a free flow of ideas but conspiring against a lawful government to overthrow it.

The OAS has been dragged into the domestic controversy turned international scandal by opponents of Chavez’s decision to shut down RCTV. Insulza’s selective indignation may have been of service to the U.S., but not necessarily to good government. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while attending the Panama gathering, had proposed that OAS Secretary General Insulza dispatch an in-depth OAS mission to look into the RCTV case and deliver a report on its findings to the OAS Permanent Council. Rice used the recent OAS General Assembly as a platform to further rally the anti-Chavez cause, asserting that “freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience are not a thorn in the side of government. Disagreeing with your government is not unpatriotic and most certainly should not be a crime in any country, especially a democracy.” This sparked a further angry retort from the Venezuelan OAS representatives, who adamantly declared that Chavez’s actions were legitimate and well within the nation’s rights to protect its sovereignty. Meanwhile, a lobby of former RCTV employees circulated around the OAS foreign ministers while the 37th OAS General Assembly was in session, in order to encourage further debate on the situation. Additionally, the U.S. has submitted to the OAS Permanent Council a statement by the U.S. Senate which urges the OAS to respond to Chavez’s decision and explore the possibility that Chavez’s actions breached the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter. Interestingly enough, as of yet, the OAS has withheld judgment on RCTV, siding with Venezuela’s position and not succumbing to the demands of Caracas’ foe to the north.

The Last Dance and Beyond: What the Future Holds

Returning to Insulza’s inaugural remarks in 2005, an overall evaluation of his tenure as OAS Secretary General thus far reveals that he has only partially begun to adequately fulfill his stated goals for the organization: “it is essential for the OAS to have meaning in the Americas, for our peoples to believe that the Organization can make a difference in their lives, in their aspirations and in their destinies, and for the OAS to be able to participate collectively in the governance of a global world.” At this point, few would suggest that his organization, as of yet, “can make a difference in their lives.”

As Kenneth Maxwell, senior fellow of Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies predicted in 2005, “the election of Insulza is a small earthquake at the OAS. Insulza’s election should get Washington’s attention above all because it demonstrates that inattention has consequences. The U.S. badly misread the game at the OAS and misplayed its cards.” However, this may be something of an exaggeration since Insulza’s advent hardly has been revolutionary. But, the U.S. has not heeded the warning that was coming from Latin America’s ranks and now is compelled to watch a new hemispheric agenda unfold in front of its eyes, with a new and noticeably different Latin American spirit to guide it. Yet, Insulza’s role thus far has been at best gradualist and transitional, with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez casting a far stronger influence over the process than the Secretary General, as well as more constantly promoting the ideas and rhetoric of the next generation. And when the U.S. realizes how much damage its relative estrangement from hemispheric policy-making in the OAS has done to its own national interest, maybe then it will realize that it has its eyes on an organization which may be morphing completely into an increasingly Latin American-oriented forum which refuses to bow to the demands of the traditional hegemonic power. Even so, it remains uncertain what role along the current path of the OAS’s development that Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza will ultimately play.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Eva Silkwood