OAS delegates face security threat on top of growing budget woes
Washington — As if budgetary and political problems were not enough, members of the Organization of American States are concerned about the safety of their delegations to the OAS general assembly this week in San Salvador. El Salvador's leftist rebels have gone on an urban offensive in recent weeks, carrying out sabotage bombings in wealthy sections of the capital, including one on the home of a government minister.
On Nov. 5, rebels launched rockets into the Sheraton Hotel, the site of this week's OAS meeting.
``The guerrillas hope to get the government to cancel the meeting, to strike a blow at the government's prestige,'' says a ranking State Department official. ``But they won't succeed.''
US officials have been meeting with OAS ambassadors in Washington to give them assurances about the security precautions planned by the US-backed Salvadoran government. Many Latin foreign ministers and ambassadors have waited until the last minute to decide whether they will attend.
Under especially tight security, Secretary of State George Shultz will address the opening session today, but he will spend only a few hours in the country, arriving late this morning and leaving before sundown.
(Memories of the secretary's August visit to Bolivia, where guerrilla bombs missed his motorcade by two seconds, are still fresh.) The rest of the 100-member US delegation to the meeting plans to stay for the whole five-day session.
The rebels, whose leaders have been on a public relations tour around Latin America to gain support for their political demands, ``have nothing to gain by physical attacks on representatives of the inter-American system,'' the State Department official said. ``But they may well try to cut power and disrupt traffic.''
On Friday at a news conference in Mexico City, Salvadoran guerrilla leaders called for a truce during the OAS meeting. A top Salvadoran commander, Col. Maurico Vargas, rejected the proposal, calling it a cynical effort to manipulate international opinion.
The OAS agenda includes human rights, economic development, the Central American peace process, and fighting drug abuse. But the most urgent matter will be the future of the organization itself.
In recent years, the US has withheld part of its dues to the OAS in an effort to get Latin nations to pay more. The US now owes $41 million.
In September, OAS Secretary-General Joao Clemente Baena Soares called on President Reagan to do for the OAS what he had just done for the United Nations - pay up.
The State Department has recommended that the US resume paying its full dues (two-thirds of the OAS budget), plus arrearages. This cannot happen until 1990, however, because of constraints built into last year's US budget agreement. So, for the second time this decade, the OAS faces a staff cut of 30 percent, an OAS spokesman says.
``I don't know if the organization can survive,'' says an OAS ambassador.
That's an exaggeration, US officials say, but they agree that the coming cuts will deal another body blow to OAS morale.
``The OAS has a desperate need for leavening and genius, to give it direction,'' a US State Department official says. ``They need to recruit a dozen brilliant men and women. But right now, it's cut, cut, cut.''
Furthermore, under the Reagan administration, the US has preferred to act unilaterally in carrying out its Central America policy rather than build a regional consensus, heightening the OAS's crisis of confidence and, some OAS ambassadors say, violating the OAS charter.
But in the next couple of years, the State Department official concludes, the OAS ``is probably going to play a much greater role.''