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A Discussion of the Future of the OAS With Secretary General José Miguel Insulza

José Miguel Insulza of the OAS addressed the significance the Organization holds today, what topics it should address, and what reforms could be undertaken.

Date & Time

May. 11, 2010
4:00pm – 5:30pm

A Discussion of the Future of the OAS With Secretary General José Miguel Insulza

Following his re-election to a second five-year term as Secretary General of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza addressed the significance the Organization holds today, what topics it should address, and what reforms could be undertaken at a May 11, 2010, seminar co-sponsored with the Inter-American Dialogue, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Brookings Institution.

The OAS: Past and Present
Insulza called the OAS one of the oldest political organizations in the modern world; it was founded in 1948 as a successor to the Pan American Union, which was established in 1910. Today, he said, "Latin America and the Caribbean are not taken for granted" and the OAS constitutes the "only forum for political dialogue with all the independent nations of the hemisphere." Only Cuba and Honduras are not members, he noted, and he expressed hope to have Honduras re-enter the regional body in the near future. The work of the organization is most known in three areas:

1. Human rights
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a respected international body for the defense of human rights. Countries as well as individuals look to the OAS for solutions to human rights problems and for definitive reporting on the human rights situations in member states.

2. Election monitoring
OAS observer missions have overseen dozens of elections and electoral processes in member states, offering guarantees of their transparency and fairness. After Europe, Insulza said, the Americas are the second most democratic continent in the world.

3. Crisis Management
The media has focused criticism on the OAS's handling of the crisis in Honduras beginning in July 2009; but he indicated that organization's successes in mediating crises in Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador should not be ignored.

Democracy and Non-intervention
Under the Inter-American Democratic Charter adopted by OAS member countries in September 2001, each country has the "right to democracy, and it's the duty of governments to give them democracy." He noted the difficulty of balancing principles of self-determination and non-intervention with the desire to promote democracy collectively. The OAS does not have mechanisms of coercion, so efforts to improve the quality of democracy must come through dialogue, negotiation, and cooperation, not force. In applying the Democratic Charter to a case of the interruption of the democratic process, an OAS mission can be sent to a country only if it requests and accepts one.

The case of Honduras, Insulza argued, demonstrates "the limits of collective action." To resolve the crisis, the OAS tried everything short of blockades and gunboats, which no one wanted. "We tried everything," he said, using all instruments at the OAS's disposal—suspension, isolation—in the wake of President Zelaya's expulsion from the country by the military. Honduras illustrates the limits of multilateralism, Insulza argued, noting that there is still no agreement in the hemisphere over what to do. With respect to Cuba's readmission to the OAS, Insulza indicated that if Cuba "wants to come back, it must abide by the same rules." He added that the Cubans have not come, and he did not think they will.

Key Issues
Insulza highlighted major challenges for the OAS and the region in general.

1. Democratic Governance
Insulza remarked that one of the biggest challenges is to "keep the hemisphere in a condition of democratic dialogue." There are unstable democracies which make the region prone to "populism, conflict, [and] difficulties," leading people to believe that democracy does not yield positive results.

2. Poverty and Inequality
Insulza noted that Latin America as a region has the highest level of inequality of anywhere in the world; two percent of the population owns 50 percent of the region's output. Poverty and inequality must be viewed as related issues that can negatively impact democracy.

3. Crime and Insecurity
High levels of crime and violence constitute a "major threat" to democratic rule, Insulza said, and opinion polls throughout the region demonstrate that crime is a principal concern for citizens. In the past, the main security problems were viewed in terms of common defense, but today, drug trafficking, organized crime, and youth gangs are relevant. Other important issues on the hemispheric agenda include how to cooperate on issues of natural disasters, migration, and climate change.

OAS Reforms
Insulza criticized the OAS as being "too regional, too inward-looking," as opposed to serving as a forum for the discussion of global problems. By contrast, other regional organizations such as ASEAN, the EU, and NATO do take up global problems and issues. Latin America and the Caribbean desire a role on the world stage commensurate with their levels of growth and development. Not serving as a body for the debate of global problems affects the relevancy of the organization.

2. Effectiveness
Responding to criticism of the OAS' budget, Insulza quoted a recent report from the OAS' Board of External Auditors (, "The OAS continues to face a difficult situation which grows progressively worse as the demands for its programs and activities exceed its resources." Insulza conveyed that "the problem is not that the OAS does not fulfill its mandates, or that we don't do what we're supposed to do, but rather that the OAS is doing too many things." Member states must define priorities and make policy decisions about priorities.


Hosted By

Latin American Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin American Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

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