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OAS reelects Insulza, but is the world's oldest regional group still relevant?

José Miguel Insulza was reelected secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) today. The former Chilean cabinet minister was the only candidate on the ballot, prompting many to ask: Why bother with the vote?

By Staff writer / March 24, 2010

Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza of Chile addresses diplomats and members of the OAS General Assembly after being re-elected to a second five-year term Wednesday. His name was the only one on the ballot.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Mexico City

In perhaps the most anti-climactic election of the year, José Miguel Insulza was reelected secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) today.

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The former Chilean cabinet minister was the only candidate on the ballot, prompting many to ask: Why bother with the vote?

Others are now taking it even further: Why bother with the institution at all?

Indeed, the regional body, which has 35 member states – minus Cuba and Honduras and including the US ­– is in a fight to preserve its own relevance.

The US questions its efficacy, while other member states dub it an arm of US foreign policy.

It has been bogged down by left-right polarization in Latin America. And nowhere did it fail more publicly than in Honduras, after Manuel Zelaya was ousted from the presidency last summer. The OAS condemned the move and booted the Central America nation from the organization – which ultimately did nothing to end the political standoff.

“I think there is a consensus about the OAS. Everybody is clear that the OAS did little to prevent the conflict in Honduras, and did little to solve it,” says Miguel Calix, a political analyst in a telephone interview from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.

World's oldest regional body

The OAS is the oldest regional organization in the world, dating back to the First International Conference of American States that began in 1889, according to its website.

The OAS as it stands today came into effect in 1951, in the midst of the Cold War. Some of its high points include a strong role in the disarmament process in the wake of civil wars in Central America and boosting electoral standards across the region. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is still held in high regard.

But the group's reputation overall has taken a beating. While hard questions came in the wake of the crisis in Honduras – which the OAS immediately called a coup, leaving it little room to negotiate the internal politics of Honduras – many say the body has been slowly losing clout in the past decade.

Christopher Sabatini, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, pegs the beginning of their decline to their observance of a 2004 referendum in Venezuela to recall President Hugo Chávez.

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