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?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.

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.

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.

“There were allegations of pre-electoral violations that were significant that in other elections would have been called out, but because they were committed to a process of reconciliation, they allowed it to slide,” says Mr. Sabatini. Since then, he says, “they have allowed some countries to bully them.”

Political tensions created paralysis

Political tensions in the region, mostly between leftist leaders such as Mr. Chávez and those who may support his ideals but bristle at his strident attitude or even those who more strongly align with the US, have contributed to paralysis in the body where consensus is key, says Sabitini.

Mr. Insulza has been accused of cozying up to leftist governments in the region.

At the same time Venezuela has called the OAS an arm of US foreign policy, as have many in Honduras and elsewhere.

At a recent meeting in Mexico of the Rio Group body, members called for the creation of a new regional institution that will exclude the US and Canada from membership.

US gripes

But the US is not happy with the OAS either. Earlier this month, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey introduced legislation to seek to improve the institution, calling for improved accounting standards, a results-based budgeting process, and transparent and merit-based human-resource policies.

“Last month, when even our key Latin American allies supported the creation of an alternative to the Organization of American States that included Cuba but excluded the United States and Canada, alarm bells went off in Washington – and rightfully so,” the senators wrote in an opinion piece of the “embattled institution” in The Miami Herald last week. “This was not your traditional statement of frustration with US policy, but rather an indictment of the OAS – the institution charged with helping all countries in the hemisphere speak with a unified voice.”

For some, though, the entire concept of regional bodies must be rethought.

If the OAS is outweighed by US influence, says Mr. Calix, a new regional body, like the one proposed in Mexico, will yield to other emerging powers, such as Brazil. “You are just changing the master,” Calix says.

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