The Organization of American States, stymied by a six-month leadership vacuum, failed to choose a new chief yesterday as its members repeatedly deadlocked in a hard-fought election.
The organization, the main forum for political cooperation in the hemisphere, held five rounds of balloting at its ornate, chandeliered headquarters on Constitution Avenue. Each vote ended in a 17 to 17 tie between the two candidates for secretary general, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez and Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza.
The countries then decided to hold a new vote on May 2.
"This could split the OAS into two groups. That's very dangerous," said Jose Ignacio Siles del Valle, Bolivia's foreign minister.
There were indications, however, that other candidates could join the contest, prompting new alliances. The U.S. favorite for the leadership post, former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores, dropped out of the race Friday when it became apparent he had little support.
Voting by the 34 OAS members was secret, but it appeared to break down along geographic lines, with North and Central America backing the Mexican candidate, and most of South America supporting the Chilean. The 14 Caribbean countries were considered the swing vote.
Chile had gone into yesterday's election confident that it had the votes to win, and its diplomats expressed irritation at the tie, charging that the United States had pressured tiny Caribbean countries to switch sides.
At one point, a senior Chilean Foreign Ministry official, Carlos Portales, walked past the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, John Maisto, and growled, "You're making a big mistake," two witnesses said.
Maisto played down the incident when asked about it later. "Chile was lobbying for our support. Had we gone for Chile instead of Mexico, you would have heard the same thing from Mexico," he said.
He denied the Bush administration had twisted arms to gain support for Derbez and said the United States had faced a difficult choice between the two candidates.
"We have a very strong relationship with Chile," he said.
The OAS promotes democracy and cooperation on a wide variety of issues, including agriculture and the fight against drug trafficking. The 57-year-old organization has taken on a higher profile in resolving regional conflicts in recent years but is facing a funding crisis.
It has been without a secretary general since October, when Miguel Angel Rodriguez withdrew after a month on the job amid a corruption scandal involving his 1998-2002 term as president of Costa Rica.
Some diplomats and observers said that the OAS vote reflected a battle for influence between the Bush administration and one of its harshest critics in the hemisphere, Venezuela's left-wing president, Hugo Chavez. Venezuela's traditional influence in the Caribbean has been bolstered by recent windfall profits for its oil.
Venezuela has backed Insulza, the Chilean candidate. The Venezuelan vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel, trumpeted the results of yesterday's vote as a victory, saying that "until now, the United States imposed its candidates."
The United States has accused Chavez of weakening Venezuela's democracy and supporting anti-American groups in the hemisphere. However, Maisto said the United States was more focused on choosing the best candidate for the OAS job than jousting with Venezuela.
At least one other politician may decide to run for OAS leader before the next vote on May 2. Peru's foreign minister, Manuel Rodriguez, said it was "a possibility" that his country would name a candidate.
The United States pays about 60 percent of the OAS budget. The OAS includes all the governments of the hemisphere except Cuba's Communist leadership.