There was an air of non-expectation surrounding the 38th Annual General Assembly of the Organization of American States held May 31 through June 2 in Medellin, Colombia. The first such gathering for this observer, I asked a veteran attendee how the 2008 event differed from years previous. “Hardly at all,” came the response. “The location changes each year, the players less frequently. But there is a sameness to the proceedings, especially the results, which always seem hard to define.”
To be sure, every member of the 34 state OAS holds veto power, providing St. Kitts & Nevis with less than 40 thousand citizens an equal voice with all other nations in the region. It also assures nothing more than the most tepid resolutions, resulting in an essentially passive organization. Cesar Gaviria, Secretary General from 1994 until 2004 and a former President of Colombia, seemed to disagree, however.
During an “academic session” at EAFIT University prior to the official opening of the assembly featuring three previous secretaries general, Gaviria called the OAS “not an authoritarian group but a collective organization.” He went on to claim success during his period in office when the Guatemalan government was convinced to stop undermining the national judiciary and, later, Peru’s deposed President Alberto Fujimori was succeeded by the elected Vice President “rather than a military junta”.
Gaviria then noted that two of the most important considerations in forming the organization had been “how to control the United States” and yet “how to include the U.S.” in issues confronting the hemisphere.
Speaking of “hemisphere”, it is an indication of the focus and relative strength of the South American members that numerous speakers referred to the “continent” during the three days of meetings rather than to the broadly understood geographic assemblage that stretches from Canada and the Arctic Circle, to Argentina, Chile and the Antarctic. A broad selection of diplomats was divided on the prospective impact of the newly formed Union of Southern Nations [UNASUR]. Largely split along geographic lines, those who thought UNASUR reflected a new-found regional dynamism were balanced by others who predicted the new group would render the OAS even less operationally effective.
During the same session, none of the three former OAS heads was willing to confront the question of terrorism in general, much less the Colombian-based narco-trafficking self-styled army, FARC. It was left to Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fernando Araujo, to define the issue when he closed the session, observing, “Just as Europe and the United States have condemned terrorism, it is incumbent on the OAS to do so, as well.” Moreover, in a clear reference to Colombia’s guided missile strike that killed the senior FARC leader known as Raul Reyes, he noted that “the principle of territorial integrity is important, but that of the sovereignty of the citizenry is more so”.
The self-conscious reference to the “continent” noted above and the seemingly endless endorsement by speakers of the assembly’s “youth and democratic values” theme, were just about all the agreement evidenced by the clearly strong -- although usually guarded -- differences, particularly among South American member states. Ecuador called for OAS review of Interpol’s recent affirmation that the contents of Raul Reyes’ captured laptop computers were not amended or otherwise altered by Colombian authorities; while Venezuela insisted the computer evidence was fabricated outright and called for respect by all members of their neighbors’ borders.
Fortunately, a third and more convincing argument was made by Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe. In his address inaugurating the Assembly’s formal proceedings, he both challenged the OAS and defended Colombia’s recent attack inside Ecuador’s border. Noting that “Marxist ideology and narco-trafficking are a combination which must be combated,” Uribe went on to urge “The OAS should remain the guarantor of both national and individual sovereignty. We are not interested in invading our neighbors, but we must defend our citizens against terrorism.” The President concluded his remarks by imploring member states to support Colombia in its struggle to “live in peace”.
The next day, the leader of the U.S. delegation, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, used the general assembly’s theme to drive home President Uribe’s point: “We cannot realize the economic and human promise of our hemisphere’s youth when transnational crime, corruption and narco-trafficking threaten their freedom, safety and economic well-being.” Emphasizing the success Colombia has made in combating drugs and terrorism, Negroponte was one of several speakers who observed that 15 years ago it would not have been possible to hold an OAS General Assembly in Medellin.
He emphasized U.S. support for Colombia and other threatened nations, noting, “… the hemisphere’s security is a joint responsibility, and several nations are providing inspiring leadership. In Colombia, the government and military are courageously taking their country back from narco-terrorists. In Mexico and Central America, brave leaders are confronting gangs, organized crime and drug lords who are destroying life and public order.
“What these democratically elected officials and civil servants are doing to strengthen the rule of law in Colombia, Central America and Mexico benefits everyone in the hemisphere…. So when regional leaders proposed a broad agenda for cooperation against criminals and drug traffickers in Central America and Mexico, the United States readily endorsed it.”
Negroponte concluded, “[This] Merida Initiative will provide substantial support over several years to train and equip Mexican and Central American law enforcement. We are committed to this initiative because no country in the hemisphere can be safe from organized crime, gangs and narco-terrorism unless we are all safe.”
In later remarks at a press conference, the Deputy Secretary said countries including specifically Venezuela “must not give refuge to the FARC”, a remark which sent Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, recently arrived from Caracas, into depths of fury reminiscent of Hugo Chavez’s personal attacks on George Bush at the United Nations in 2006. Venezuela’s 40 person delegation, twice the size of any other visiting country [the United States had 20 representatives, Mexico 19 and Brazil 10], reminded one attendee of Soviet behavior at long ago conferences during the Cold War: “They were everywhere, talking to hardly anyone not in their delegation, watching, listening, whispering to each other and exchanging notes ... in general, thoroughly unpleasant.”
Earlier, during his address immediately prior to President Uribe’s, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza had described in very positive terms the advances made throughout the region in areas ranging from education and health to sheer economic growth. He noted that the hemisphere was perhaps the least affected area in the world by food shortages, and especially lauded his own initiative in support of the region’s youth and of democratic values. Insulza also focused on the situation between Colombia and Ecuador, as well as the internal Bolivian dispute, although he carefully avoided mentioning Venezuela in these contexts.
Importantly, however, the Secretary General cited as fundamental, “When a member state of the OAS confronts the action of an armed group, as is the case of the FARC in Colombia, having committed terrorist acts typified in our Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism, it has the right to solicit support of the other member states to combat such aggression.”
Several interesting security-oriented comments were made by Peruvian Foreign Minister, Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde, who highlighted – in addition to stressing his nation’s remarkable economic and social achievements – that Peru had been a significant factor, swen ding a battalion of troops, in the OAS effort to bring stability to Haiti. Noting ongoing efforts to remove land mines from the Peru-Ecuador border and Peru’s role presiding over the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism during the current year, Garcia Belaunde furthered the impression that the regime of President Alan Garcia has indeed become one of the more mature governments in the region.
As for the meeting’s announced theme of “youth and democratic values”, certain signal events such as a concert played by talented young artists from across the region, were held. On the other hand, the Barbados ambassador noted wryly that not only were speakers representing some 16 civil organizations who addressed the assembly substantially over the age of 30; the average age of the OAS delegates was even older. He was later countered by Foreign Minister Louis Straker of neighboring St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who observed that his country’s newly appointed Ambassador to the OAS was the youngest in the organization’s history [Ambassador-designate La Celia Prince later would only admit to being in her “early thirties”].
Foreign Minister Straker, in fact, gave what could have been the keynote address in the Tuesday morning session, which was addressed by all heads of delegations present, typically with platitude-ridden remarks. Straker discussed in detail the issues facing youth and the need constantly to seek the strengthening of democracy throughout the region. Like several of its sister states in the Caribbean, the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines underwrites comprehensive health and education benefits, in an effort to provide its citizens – especially the majority under 30 – the basis for a successful life.
In what many considered a telling incident, several dissident university students from Venezuela’s Fuerza Solidaria, clearly the most dynamic youth group in attendance, were not given the opportunity to speak regarding civil liberties under the Chavez regime. In contrast, some 16 different individuals and groups ranging from a Paraguayan lesbian to multiple racially concerned groups were allowed to state their cases.
Throughout the meetings in Medellin, the name of the first OAS Secretary General was often cited with respect. Former Colombian President Alberto Lleras Camargo, who served from the group’s founding in 1948 until 1954 laid the foundations for the fledgling organization. However, no one observed that Lleras resigned his position prematurely, reportedly by those who knew him because he was thoroughly frustrated by the fractious, loquacious and inefficient ungovernability of the Organization of American States.
It can be argued that gatherings such as the annual OAS general assembly at least give region diplomats a chance to exchange views. Moreover, substantial time is devoted to bilateral meetings, in which it may be hoped subjects of substance are discussed and -- at least occasionally -- resolved.
That said, it is perhaps most emblematic of the OAS effectiveness as a discussion group that at least one ambassador to the organization will not be present next year. Ambassador Hidalgo Valero, representing Venezuela, will soon be taking up his new post as Hugo Chavez’s representative at that other, world-class multi-lateral organization where much is discussed but little accomplished: the United Nations.