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A Modest Proposal: Venezuela suggests a sabbatical as OAS considers new strategic vision

February 3, 2012

In December, I posed what I believe to be an important question: Is the OAS dead?

I began questioning the future of the OAS as a direct result of two regional trends: first, the prevalence of anti-OAS rhetoric at the inaugural meeting of the Community of Latin and Caribbean States (CELAC), and second, the relatively recent movement in the US Congress to at least partially de-fund the OAS.

Based on the most recent meeting of the Permanent Council, the question seems even more relevant today.

Hall of the Americas at the OAS Main Building. Washington, DC. (Courtesy of OAS Media Center.)

The OAS uses a four-pronged approach to serving the needs of member nations, based on its four main pillars: democracy, human rights, security, and development. These four pillars serve as guiding principles for the OAS.

On Feb. 1, during a regular meeting of the OAS Permanent Council, Secretary General José Miguel Insulza presented a new proposal.

A Strategic Vision

While the document itself is called “A Strategic Vision of the OAS”, it’s really more of a call for a strategic vision. It states that “currently there is consensus on our activities and basic documents”, referring back to the four pillars.

However, the document also admits that the OAS is overextended and current efforts underfunded. With this in mind, the Secretary General is making a general call for the OAS to evaluate current projects–measuring them based on the four pillars–and to reprioritize, as needed:

“If we return to giving strict priority to the core OAS missions, that would lead us to concrete measures that we could carry out efficiently and achieve the objectives that the member states have set. Today we have clear budgetary restrictions, many of them diagnosed in recent months. The assumption is that by concentrating on fundamentals, not only can we overcome the short-term situation, but also dispel many doubts about what role the OAS is destined to play in the hemispheric context.”

The document does provide some policy recommendations, but the Secretary General went to great lengths to emphasize that everything should be open for discussion. This is based on the idea that the effectiveness of the OAS depends on “a concerted effort [...] between the member states and the General Secretariat”.

While the Secretary General presented several proposals, these seem most pertinent:

• Decentralization of programs. Local OAS offices in member states would take on more responsibility for OAS plans and programs, even to the point of relocating program functions from the OAS Headquarters in Washington, DC to OAS offices in the host countries themselves. This would be determined by, among other things, regional or national priority and strategic outlook.

• Financial Quotas. Under this proposal, a rule would be introduced “whereby no country pays more than 49% of the contributions to the Regular Fund.” This would reduce OAS financial dependency on any one member state (which is probably fiscally sound, given the precariousness of US funding for the OAS), while requiring other member states to step up.

The report concludes by reiterating the importance of cooperation between member states and the General Secretariat:

“In sum, the fate of the Organization is in the hands of its masters, as is only proper, which is why I propose that this dialogue be held as a matter of urgency, and that no time be wasted in tackling our current predicament and reaching decisions that will offer the OAS a future of greater dynamism and presence in the region’s affairs.”

El Nacional, a Caracas-based newspaper, reports on the response (en español) to Secretary General Insulza’s proposal.

A working vacation?

Ambassador Carmen Velásquez, the representative of Venezuela, recommended that the OAS take a one-year break after the 2012 General Assembly–currently scheduled for June in Cochabamba, Bolivia–in order “to concentrate on discussing the strategic vision of the organization.”

While Ambassador Velásquez did not specify whether she was advocating a complete break in action or merely a cancellation of the 2013 General Assembly, the suggestion came about two months after the inaugural meeting of the Community of Latin and Caribbean States (CELAC), which some Latin American leaders hope will replace the OAS.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made crystal clear his feelings about the OAS–which is still considered by some Latin American countries to be the unofficial regional mouthpiece of the US–when he addressed the CELAC assembly:

“The CELAC is being born with a new spirit [...] As the years pass, the CELAC will leave behind the old and worn out OAS.”

Ambassador Velásquez’s suggestion that the OAS take a year off found support in both Nicaragua and Uruguay.

Her colleague from Nicaragua, Ambassador Denis Ronaldo Moncada, emphasized that currently “there is no shared concept [between member states] on the priorities” of the Organization.

This cynicism is not terribly surprising given the recent statement by the U.S. Department of State, expressing concern about “Democratic Conditions in Nicaragua”. In this statement, Secretary Clinton references the Final Report (published on Jan. 25, 2012) of the OAS Mission of Electoral Accompaniment for the Nov. 6, 2011 general elections in Nicaragua.

The Nicaragua Dispatch provides insight into the apparent self-contradictions that could help explain Nicaragua’s frustration with the OAS.

Ambassador Jorge Collazo of Uruguay also supported the Venezuelan proposal: “It doesn’t seem bad to us that the OAS provide time [to consider the strategic vision] after Cochabamba, as Venezuela said.”

Uruguay’s support of this proposal is a little less intuitive than that of Nicaragua.

New and improved?

When asked in early December by the AFB news agency whether or not the CELAC would displace the OAS, Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue (as quoted by the BBC) indicated that he was not concerned:

“[The OAS] has clearly defined purposes and principles to guide it. Its procedures are in place. And it has a budget – most of which comes from the US and Canada.”

Mr. Hakim brings up an important point about institutional differences between the OAS and the CELAC. It seems unlikely that the CELAC will replace the OAS completely for several reasons, not least of which being a question of organizational substance vs. style.

As the oldest international organization in the world, the OAS has a long history of surviving economic downturns, navigating leadership changes, and adapting to shifts in popular political thought.

So far, the two IO’s seem to be coexisting well enough. While they aren’t exactly working together, they don’t seem to be systematically working against each other, either–despite the rhetoric.

We’ll know more about the future of working relations between the two regional organizations after the OAS General Assembly in June 2012 and the CELAC Summit in January 2013.

The way ahead

Secretary General Insulza is right: The OAS is in need of a new strategic vision, to include a reevaluation of priorities and reallocation of resources, as needed. Establishing this strategic vision needs to be a priority for the Organization, but this will only be possible through collaboration and consensus.

It’s possible that a year-long sabbatical would be helpful to summit-fatigued regional leaders who are trying to take inventory and reconsider organizational priorities for the rest of the 21st Century. Sometimes you need to take a break from a project in order to see everything more clearly.

But it’s easy to get distracted.

While the proposed break should not necessarily be dismissed outright, it does seem more probable that such a break in collaborative work would actually serve to undermine cooperation between member states and the General Secretariat.

Given the importance of the strategic vision for the future of the OAS, the modest proposal of an organizational sabbatical seems like a pretty big risk.

The full text of “A Strategic Vision of the OAS” is available through the OAS Media Center in both English and español.

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