- - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, Luis Almagro, then Uruguay’s foreign minister, gushed that the anti-U.S. populist Venezuelan leader had “reinvented Latin America.”

Two years later, now secretary-general of the Organization of American States, he derided Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez’s handpicked successor, as a “little dictator” and “traitor to his people.”

The Uruguayan diplomat’s about-face from a defender of the socialist status quo to perhaps its staunchest Latin American critic has been attributed, variously, to his strong convictions and, by his many critics, a total lack of them.

What is certain is that the 53-year-old lawyer has created an exceptionally bold profile in less than two years at the traditionally somnolent OAS, one that will grow even more controversial when he travels to Cuba on Wednesday to accept an award from a pro-democracy group that has long clashed with the Castro communist regime in Havana.

His trip to the island, where Mr. Almagro is set to accept the Latin America Youth Network for Democracy’s Oswaldo Paya Prize, will force him to navigate a diplomatic minefield. The Cuban government remains one of Mr. Maduro’s staunchest allies and has refused to return to the OAS, from which it was excluded from 1962 to 2009.

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Mr. Almagro’s decision to travel to Cuba to accept an award named for one of the country’s most famous political dissidents touches on a delicate subject for the regime.

“It doesn’t surprise me that there are doubts about whether the Cuban government will admit a high official to talk about internal democracy and human rights, subjects that are still very sensitive,” Ms. Arnson told The Associated Press last week.

In an analysis, Michael Shifter and Ben Raderstorf of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank focused on Latin American issues, called Mr. Almagro’s Cuba trip a “characteristically bold move” by an OAS chief who has repeatedly “defied expectations and attempted to push the envelope in his position.”

They say there are risks to Mr. Almagro’s approach as well.

“The move risks stoking conflict with Cuba and building tensions at a delicate moment for U.S.-Latin American relations, and when the Cuban government feels uncertain and vulnerable,” they wrote. “With the Trump administration, many in Cuba expect a return to a more hostile era with their northern neighbor and while many hard-liners may even relish new fights with its old adversary, the Cuban people would surely pay the price.”

Such dangerous terrain, though, seems custom-made for Mr. Almagro, a former ambassador to Iran, Germany and China who is now bent on making a name for himself while trying to bring the world’s oldest regional organization back from obscurity and irrelevance. A 2016 Congressional Research Service report said the OAS is “slow to arrive at decisions and prone to inaction.”

Grabbing the spotlight

So far, however, the spotlight seems to be more on the outspoken Mr. Almagro and less on the 35-nation organization he represents. That’s mostly because he has infuriated the ever-colorful Mr. Maduro on numerous occasions, such as when he urged OAS members to vote in May on whether Caracas had violated the principles of its Inter-American Democratic Charter.

“Mr. Almagro, shove your democratic charter up wherever you deem fit,” the president lashed out in repose. “Venezuela will be respected, and no charter will be applied to Venezuela.”

Just days before his outburst Mr. Maduro accused Mr. Almagro of being a CIA agent who was colluding with Venezuelan detractors to topple his government. Richard Arteaga, a lawmaker for longtime opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ Justice First party, dubbed the accusation “ridiculous” and “stupid.”

“We are used to [hearing comments] against the ‘Yankee empire,’” Mr. Arteaga told The Washington Times. “But I would tell Almagro that we have to keep working hard and to not only take a tough stance but move toward action.”

But there is considerable skepticism whether Mr. Almagro’s activism, headline-grabbing as it may be, can truly make a difference as Venezuela nears economic and social meltdown, said Christine Balling, a senior fellow for Latin American affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.

“I don’t think the OAS has any power to effect significant change. The situation in Venezuela is pretty much evidence of that,” Ms. Balling said. “I don’t think that Maduro will change his tune just because [Mr. Almagro] is condemning him.”

Still, having a Latin American lead the charge against Mr. Maduro’s human rights abuses helps counter the “far-left narrative” of American imperialist meddling in Venezuela, she said, and may encourage regional leaders to distance themselves from the authoritarian president.

Indeed, Mr. Almagro has found allies in Presidents Mauricio Macri of Argentina and Michel Temer of Brazil, both of whom reversed their predecessors’ friendly stance toward Caracas. But even though Mr. Macri has dubbed his Venezuelan counterpart a “coward,” the OAS chief last year suggested that the Argentine president’s rejection was not principled enough.

In Mr. Almagro’s native Uruguay, meanwhile, that kind of absolutist approach has raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers. The diplomat’s repeated clashes with Mr. Maduro were received “with certain surprise, especially because of [their] vehemence,” said Julian Gonzalez Guyer, a political scientist at Montevideo’s University of the Republic.

“One thing is to hold critical positions,” he said, “another to be systematically critical.”

Former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica — an ardent backer of his foreign minister’s 2015 candidacy to head the OAS — apparently reached the same conclusion and, in the midst of his showdown with Mr. Maduro, threw Mr. Almagro out of the leftist Movement of Popular Participation party.

But neither Uruguayans nor Venezuelans should have been baffled that the diplomat “changed ideas faster than it takes to cook a pancake,” commentator Antonio Mercader wrote in the country’s El Pais daily. If anything, Mr. Almagro was simply being a shrewd politician, said Mr. Mercader, a former Uruguayan OAS ambassador.

“They would not have been so surprised if they had studied his resume before voting for him,” he said, “since political zigzag is a constant in Almagro’s career.”

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