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.