Insulza's Divided Attention

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, December 14, 2007; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Strange as it might sound, my New Year's resolution for 2008 is not for me but for Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States. I'd like him to be more presidential as leader of the watchdog for democracy in the Americas, and less of a wannabe president of Chile.

Insulza has made no secret of his desire to be Chile's chief executive in 2009. He travels home frequently and is quoted in the Chilean press giving his opinion about political developments there. His ambitions have become so obvious that some within the OAS claim he is using its Web site to mount a presidential campaign. At one point his press office posted a story about a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The accompanying photo was of Insulza -- by himself.

Just last week, Insulza appeared on Chilean television to remind his countrymen that he is "naturally going to be available" to run as the candidate for Chile's left-of-center coalition in the 2009 election. Patricia Esquenazi, his press secretary in Washington who doesn't speak English, is perceived as spending more time managing Insulza's image as a candidate than his role as the OAS' top representative.

Insulza excuses his divided attention, saying that it is good for the OAS that the secretary-general remains "politically relevant," as he told me in an interview this week. That is true to a point -- a leader looking to the future of a member nation does seem preferable to the stereotypical OAS official who is essentially looking forward to retirement.

But the political relevance of the OAS is not bolstered if it is seen merely as a launching pad for ambitious future regional leaders.

For Insulza, the OAS should not be a conduit but a proving ground of his chief executive mettle.

So far, Insulza has shown himself to be a capable administrator. Some OAS ambassadors and officials credit him with restoring order and credibility to the organization, which hit bottom three years ago when corruption charges forced former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez to resign only two weeks into his five-year term as secretary-general.

But as Luis Lauredo, former U.S. ambassador to the OAS, put it, "we don't need an administrator, we need a leader at the OAS." Latin America is going through one of "the more difficult historic moments in modern times," said Lauredo, a kind of moment that "requires the kind of concentration now we know he (Insulza) doesn't have."

Today, there are broad and contentious disputes among and within the nations of the Americas. In many countries, the lack of economic progress has fed popular discontent. Some regional leaders are pulling back from capitalist reforms, while old ruling classes clamor for justice as those previously disenfranchised attained power.

In Bolivia, for instance, President Evo Morales' plan to overhaul the constitution and give greater powers to poor regions and more benefits to the indigenous majority threatens to split the Andean nation. Governors of four of the country's richer provinces are vowing to declare their autonomy. There has already been violence, with three people killed and more than 100 injured in protests on Nov. 24.

Last week, both sides of the Bolivian conflict came to Washington to meet with Insulza. But with the dispute brewing since Morales began the constitutional reform process, Insulza has refrained from making a visit to see things firsthand.

It was that kind of engagement in which one of Insulza's predecessors -- former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria -- excelled. Gaviria had his faults but he also had a sense of how to act presidential. On several occasions, when the institution was slow to respond to a regional crisis, Gaviria went over the heads of OAS ambassadors to quickly act as a peacemaker. His swift appearance in Asuncion in 1996 helped prevent the overthrow of President Juan Carlos Wasmosy of Paraguay. On other occasions, when governments were less anxious to receive him, Gaviria made it his business to be invited.

Insulza does have traits that could make him a strong leader. In fact, there was a lot of hope when he was elected that, as one U.S. House staff member reminded me, this "tough, principled guy would make decisions that would push the envelope." If Insulza can demonstrate those characteristics during the second half of his term, I would achieve my New Year's resolution -- and Chileans might have in him a capable and qualified presidential candidate after all.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company