- - Thursday, March 1, 2018

Oil-rich Venezuela lacks food and medicine, Brazil’s new middle class nears implosion, corruption scandals shake governments across the region, U.S. relations with Mexico, Cuba and other governments face new strains, next month’s Summit of the Americas is shaping up as a diplomatic brawl, and Caribbean islands struggle to recover from ever more violent natural disasters.

But even with no shortage of regional brush fires to put out, critics say, the one hemispheric body set up to foster “intensive continental cooperation” has hardly been missing in action.

Besieged by a chronic lack of funding and commitment, the Washington-based Organization of American States — which marks the 70th anniversary of its founding next month — now faces an “ongoing irrelevancy trap” in which these “long-standing perceptions” threaten to “become self-fulfilling prophecies,” a leading think tank warned in a scathing recent review.

While Secretary-General Luis Almagro’s unapologetic outspokenness of late has helped raise the organization’s profile, it has also “exposed the myth that a strong [head] is all the OAS needs … to recover its lost stature” and unnerved many a member state, authors Ben Raderstorf and Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue argue in their piece.

Mr. Almagro’s attempts to revamp some of his organization’s tired internal structures, meanwhile, have been met with “considerable pushback,” the report charges, even as it underlines the value of what is arguably the world’s oldest regional organization.

The report’s authors say they come not to bury the OAS but to prod it to live up to its potential.

“We see the OAS as … more important than ever,” Mr. Raderstorf told The Washington Times. “Inter-American relations are more fragile and more delicate, and frankly more at risk of multiple parties just walking away — the U.S. first among them — from … a multilateral approach to democracy and diplomacy and governance in the hemisphere.”

But many critics argue that the 35-member group has outlived its usefulness, particularly given the direction of economic and security policy in Washington under President Trump. It’s not clear that Washington — and many other capitals in the region — would welcome a more activist OAS.

The OAS “doesn’t do any harm, it doesn’t do any good,” said Christine Balling, a senior fellow for Latin American affairs at the conservative American Foreign Policy Council. “I think that [bilateral contact] is really the only way to get anything done that the U.S. would care about.”

The time for the fixes needed to counter a “deterioration of multilateralism in the Americas” may soon run out, Mr. Raderstorf said. The OAS “is both more important and more at risk of falling into a permanent cycle of essentially non-existence — in functional terms, not in literal ones,” he said.

The Venezuela problem

The organization’s opportunities and challenges are illustrated by the case of Venezuela, a founding member whose embattled socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, is famously dubbed a “petty dictator.”

The decision by the secretary-general, a former foreign minister for Uruguay, to call out the regime’s human rights violations — a U-turn from the muted approach of his predecessor — has earned him unusually wide media coverage, along with accolades from the Venezuelan opposition. But Mr. Almagro’s forceful rhetoric aside, the OAS has failed to take concrete measures to rein in Mr. Maduro’s abuses.

“When he came in [amid] a period of considerable backsliding in Venezuela, [Mr. Almagro] chose to respond more forcefully,” Mr. Raderstorf said. “Now, the problem was he didn’t have the tools that he needed to actually make anything happen.”

That’s because Mr. Maduro — joined by leftist allies from member states such as Bolivia and Nicaragua and many Caribbean nations benefiting from discounted oil from Caracas — easily deadlocked meetings, so much so that regional powers alarmed by Venezuela’s meltdown in August set up a forum outside the OAS to tackle the crisis.

“The formation of the [so-called] Lima Group addressed a very important political moment, which was that the Organization of American States was blockaded,” said Maria Teresa Belandria Exposito, a professor of international law at the Central University of Venezuela.

Although the organization on Feb. 23 narrowly agreed to urge Caracas to cancel early presidential elections now set for April, it has long failed to suspend Venezuela’s membership over an “unconstitutional interruption of democratic order” — as it did in the case of Honduras after the 2009 ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, a close ally of Mr. Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

“Why hasn’t there been more progress? Because … a group of countries [has] prevented the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which would mean the suspension of membership, from being applied to Venezuela,” Ms. Belandria said.

That strategy, meanwhile, springs from a 70-year-old charter and a structure set up with a rather black-and-white vision of democratic governance.

“The democracy-protection mechanisms within the OAS are not as well developed as they need to be in order to confront the nuanced and oftentimes gray-area democratic challenges of the 21st century,” Mr. Raderstorf said. “When it comes to democratic decay and a slow slide into authoritarianism and dictatorship, it doesn’t have the institutional mechanisms to independently offer an evaluation and a nonpolitical response strategy.”

That perfectly captures the Venezuelan dilemma, Ms. Belandria said.

“A grave ‘interruption of democratic order’ is a classic coup — tanks, planes, you know. But nobody was prepared for this use of democracy and democratic mechanisms to [weaken] democracy to the point of turning the government into a dictatorship,” she said. “That’s why there is no instrument within the OAS that allows us to confront the Venezuelan situation with the needed efficiency.”

Mr. Almagro’s open criticism of Cuba’s authoritarian government has also sparked a sharp response from Havana. The OAS chief has said the Summit of the Americas scheduled for April in Peru should not extend invitations to any “dictators” in the hemisphere.

Cuban Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Rogelio Sierra said this week that Mr. Almagro has “no credibility, morality or ethics to judge what the government and the people of Cuba does.”

“We categorically reject the declarations by the secretary general of the OAS for being interventionist. Cuba will continue on its own path,” Mr. Sierra told reporters in Havana.

Structural problems

OAS officials reject the charges of ineffectiveness and irrelevance, in Venezuela and in the hemisphere overall.

“Actually, the OAS has been [playing] a leading role in the Venezuela issue for the last 2½ years,” spokesman Gonzalo Espariz told The Washington Times. He said the OAS was aware of the Inter-American Dialogue report but did not answer repeated requests for comment and specific questions about its findings.

If the OAS fails to acknowledge its structural problems, though, it also runs the risk of worsening what Mr. Raderstorf and Mr. Shifter call its chronic underfunding.

“Unless the OAS demonstrates the importance of its mission, leaders around the hemisphere will not be likely to see it as worth investing in further,” they write.

And if there is one thing the organization desperately needs, it’s more money, Mr. Raderstorf said.

“It’s asked to do … everything from shepherding peace in Colombia to anti-corruption in Honduras to a hemispheric approach to narcotics policy — not to mention the really thorny issues like democracy in Venezuela — all with a budget [that] is minuscule,” he said. “For what it costs, the organization gets a lot done. It’s not that it’s a bad deal; it’s been asked to do too much with too little.”

Still, member states have long been reticent to chip in — in part because Latin American leaders often view the OAS as a tool of Washington, whereas the U.S. government fears it will be tied down by smaller, unfriendly governments in Central and South America.

“Everybody tends to see the OAS as captured and controlled by someone else,” Mr. Raderstorf said. “There has been an abdication of responsibility and ownership on all sides.”

Nevertheless, “competitors” such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) — pushed by former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Mr. Chavez, respectively — are in no position to take the place of the OAS, Mr. Raderstorf said.

“Certainly in Latin America, there are a lot of leaders that instinctively would prefer to work through a Latin American organization, an organization not headquartered in Washington,” he said. But “UNASUR and CELAC … are phantom organizations: They don’t really exist beyond presidential summits.”

Ironically, the lack of a formal alternative may be recognized even by Mr. Maduro, who, with much fanfare, announced Venezuela’s supposed exit from the OAS last April.

“There was a general outcry among member states for Venezuela not to leave,” Ms. Belandria said. “And in practical terms, it did not leave because it continued to send its ambassador to the meetings of the Permanent Council.”

So the organization may not be going anywhere. But if it wants to stand a chance to change the region, it must now heed the call to change, analysts insist.

“The challenge of reform is an enormous prisoner’s dilemma game that relies on the assembling of a grand coalition and grand bargain,” Mr. Raderstorf said. “There will always be an OAS. Whether or not it always means something is not so clear.”

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