Mr. Obama should press for change at the OAS

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

SINCE ITS founding in 1948, the Organization of American States has defined its two top purposes as "to strengthen peace and security" and "to consolidate and promote representative democracy." On the second count, it is failing.

Despite the adoption in 2001 of a "democracy charter," the OAS has done little to stem what has been a steady erosion of free elections, free press and free assembly in Latin America during the past five years. When Honduras's president was arrested and dispatched to exile by the military last year, the organization was aggressive but clumsy -- and ended up making a democratic outcome harder to achieve. In the case of countries where democracy has been systematically dismantled by a new generation of authoritarian leaders, including Venezuela and Nicaragua, the OAS has failed to act at all.

The embodiment of this dysfunction has been OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. A Chilean socialist, Mr. Insulza has unabashedly catered to the region's left-wing leaders -- which has frequently meant ignoring the democratic charter. Last year, he pushed for the lifting of Cuba's ban from the OAS, even though there has been no liberalization of the Castro dictatorship. When Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez launched a campaign against elected leaders of his opposition, stripping them of power and launching criminal investigations, Mr. Insulza refused to intervene, claiming the OAS "cannot be involved in issues of internal order of member states." Yet when leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya tried to change his own country's internal order by illegally promoting a constitutional referendum, Mr. Insulza supported him, even offering to dispatch observers.

Now Mr. Insulza is up for reelection; a vote is scheduled for late next month. The United States, which supplies 60 percent of the funding for the OAS's general secretariat -- $47 million in 2009 -- ought to have a prime interest in replacing him with someone who will defend democracy. Yet the Obama administration is paralyzed: It has yet to make a decision about whether to support a new term for Mr. Insulza. Partly because of that waffling, no alternative candidate has emerged.

There is some reason for this. Five years ago, an effort by the Bush administration to promote a couple of friendly candidates backfired, and a U.S.-backed nominee this year would surely trigger pushback by Mr. Chávez and his allies, and by center-left governments such as Brazil. But the potential resistance to Mr. Insulza is growing. Panama, Colombia, Canada and Mexico could be enlisted in the search for an alternative. Even Chile's new center-right president has so far declined to endorse his compatriot.

At a minimum, the administration should embrace the recommendation of a recent Senate report on the OAS drawn up by the staff of Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). It calls for the OAS permanent council to require that Mr. Insulza make a presentation about his proposals and priorities for a second term, and for any other candidate who steps forward to offer such a presentation as well.

The United States should make clear that it will not support any secretary general whose platform on democracy issues is inadequate. Congress should meanwhile consider whether the United States should continue to provide the bulk of the funding for the OAS when it fails to live by its own charter.

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