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In OAS Election, U.S. Favorite Bows Out

Two Vie to Lead Latin American Group After El Salvador's Flores Withdraws

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page A23

The U.S. choice to lead the Organization of American States is dropping out of tomorrow's election for the post, amid indications he had garnered little support despite heavy lobbying from Washington.

Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador, said at a news conference Friday evening that he would abandon his bid to run the OAS, the main forum for political cooperation in the hemisphere. His withdrawal leaves two other candidates: Jose Miguel Insulza, Chile's interior minister; and Luis Ernesto Derbez, Mexico's foreign minister.

Former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores said he dropped his candidacy to lead the Organization of American States because even Central America was divided on whom to support. Flores had backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which was unpopular in much of Central and South America. (William Martinez -- AP)

A Flores loss would have been viewed as embarrassing for the United States, whose candidate for OAS chief is almost always elected, diplomats and observers said. Flores had endeared himself to the Bush administration with his support for the Iraq invasion, which was unpopular in much of Central and South America.

The former Salvadoran leader told reporters he had decided to step down because even Central America was split over who to vote for, creating "a dangerous situation of dividing the region even more over a candidacy."

The OAS promotes democracy and regional cooperation on issues ranging from poverty reduction to drug trafficking. It has been without a secretary general since October, when Miguel Angel Rodriguez stepped down because of allegations he took kickbacks while president of Costa Rica from 1998 to 2002. Rodriguez had won the OAS post last June without opposition.

Flores's surprise announcement threw open the race, which is viewed as being less about individual candidates' qualities than regional alliances. Most of South America has declared support for Insulza, who has been dubbed the "Karl Rove of Chile" for his political skills. He belongs to the Socialists, one of several leftist but generally moderate parties that have come to power in South America in recent years.

The United States is now expected to join Canada and Mexico in backing Derbez, a U.S.-trained economist who spent 14 years at the World Bank. Derbez is also expected to pick up several Central American votes that had been committed to Flores.

Flores's candidacy failed to catch fire at least in part because of his close identification with U.S. foreign policy, diplomats and analysts said. El Salvador is the only Latin American country with troops in Iraq, and has been sharply critical of the leftist governments of Cuba and Venezuela.

The Bush administration erred in "pushing a candidate who is more aggressive than the other Latin Americans want," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

No matter who won, though, there was never a concern that the OAS would cool toward the United States. Washington pays about 60 percent of the organization's budget, and is the dominant political and economic player in the hemisphere. All of the candidates' countries have had generally positive relations with the Bush administration.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a statement yesterday that the United States had "the highest respect for the two remaining candidates" and was "prepared to work fully and constructively with whomever is elected." The department said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had congratulated Flores for his campaign when he called to inform her of his withdrawal.

The key to the election is expected to be the Caribbean countries, which account for 14 of the 34 votes to be cast. The tiny nations are often courted and pressured by more powerful OAS members during elections, and this round appears no different.

The Caribbean Community said in a statement that the "overwhelming majority" of its members would back Insulza. But because voting is by secret ballot, there is no guarantee the Chilean will win.

"Everybody is still lobbying. Just like any election in the U.S., it's down to the last hour," said Ellsworth John, the OAS ambassador from St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The vote occurs while some tensions exist between the United States and its neighbors. Much of the Caribbean was unhappy with Washington's acceptance of the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last year. And many Latin American countries feel the U.S. government is preoccupied with Iraq and ignoring them, analysts say.

For its part, the Bush administration has been irritated by the lack of support for its Iraq policy. Still, the United States is the largest trading partner for many OAS countries, and it shares a commitment to democracy and market-based economics with most of the hemisphere.

The new secretary general will take over at a time when the OAS has adopted a higher profile in trying to solve regional conflicts, but is strapped financially. The OAS acting secretary general, Luigi Einaudi, said recently that the group will not be able to fulfill its mission unless it boosts its $75 million budget by an extra $17 million.

The vote will be held at the marble-faced OAS headquarters on Constitution Avenue and 17th Street NW tomorrow morning. The organization includes all countries in the hemisphere except Cuba, which was expelled in 1962.

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