OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro arrives to meet Paraguay's President Mario Abdo Benitez at the presidential palace in Asuncion, Paraguay, Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. Picture: Jorge Saenz/A
OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro arrives to meet Paraguay's President Mario Abdo Benitez at the presidential palace in Asuncion, Paraguay, Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. Picture: Jorge Saenz/A

Battle for the soul of Latin America

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Mar 15, 2020

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There is currently a battle underway for the ideological direction Latin America will take - a battle between the progressive left-wing forces and those allied to the right-wing agenda of the Trump administration. The divisions have become entrenched in the lead up to the elections to be held next week for the Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS). 

The OAS is the main multilateral organisation for Latin America, and its headquarters are based in Washington DC. The reason that the election of the Secretary-General of the OAS has become so hotly contested is that the incumbent SG Luis Almagro has been roundly criticised by left-wing governments for acting against the principles and mandate of the organisation, and supporting US allies while punishing their adversaries. 

From the perspective of his detractors, Almagro has divided the continent and openly intervened in the internal politics of member countries. This became of such concern that his own political party in Uruguay expelled him from the party, and advocated removing him from the OAS. The Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines has said that the OAS and Almagro have become “enemies of democracy and the progressive forces on the continent.”

Behind these criticisms has been Almagro’s promotion of intervention into the political affairs of left-wing governments in alliance with the Trump administration. Last September Almagro, as the SG of the OAS, threatened military intervention to overthrow President Nicholas Maduro’s government in Venezuela, the very notion of which violated the OAS Charter which is supposed to resolve conflicts through peaceful means. Earlier last year Almagro had followed the US lead of instantly recognising Juan Guaido as the self-proclaimed President of Venezuela. 

In 2017 Almagro was also criticised for allegedly interfering in the elections in Honduras. The Honduran opposition claimed that the OAS under Almagro’s leadership had supported the US embassy in propping up the incumbent. Almagro had also backtracked on the mandate given to him by the OAS to ensure that corruption in Honduras was prosecuted. The result of this was an outflow of refugees from Honduras which had headed towards the US in what Trump had called the refugee ‘caravan.’ 

Almagra has made interfering statements on the politics of Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia - statements that are almost a replica of Washington’s standard discourse against existing left-wing governments. The OAS played an important role in stoking the protests against the leftist government of Bolivia’s first indigenous President Evo Morales, and ensuring that the coup against him was successful. On the day of the election the OAS issued a statement casting doubt on the electoral process, a position which was thoroughly debunked by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research which found that there had been no irregularities or fraud. The OAS echoed the position of the US State Department and Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

The Argentinian President-elect at the time, Alberto Fernandezs, had called the behaviour of the OAS at the time shameful, and said the conclusions of the OAS on the electoral process were ‘absolutely manipulated.’

Similar to the strategy Almagro used in Bolivia, the OAS supported the right-wing opposition in Dominica during last December’s elections, and actively worked against the Labor party in power. The attempts by the OAS to boycott the elections in Dominica was part of that strategy.

Almagro is now firmly situated in the pro-Trump camp, to the extent that he is articulating positions held by the Trump administration on everything from climate change (downplaying the need to slow climate change) to failing to stand up for the rights of migrants in the region. Almagro has also become an ally of Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. 

Almagro was not always so unpopular among progressive forces in the region. When he campaigned for the position of SG in March 2015, he had the support of Caribbean countries which comprise almost half of the OAS membership. In seeking election Almagro had made three promises to the Caribbean countries, none of which he has fulfilled. He had promised to create a contingency fund for natural disasters, an interconnectivity fund to overcome weaknesses in ICT and logistics, and also an inter-American initiative on climate change. The only thing Almagro did was create a paltry fund for disasters, but the rest were empty promises.

Caribbean countries are generally free and democratic societies which are driven by pragmatism, and they would rather support a candidate that is more likely to deliver this time around. They have therefore thrown their support behind the former President of the UN General Assembly (who is an Ecuadorian national) Maria Fernanda Espinosa who champions issues that affect the region, such as climate change, migration and economic development. 

Espinosa has a track record of consensus building, and was considered to be ‘ideologically-free’ at the UN. Espinosa was committed to working in the interest of all states and never gave advantage to the agenda of one country or region. This is in stark contrast to what seems to be Almagro’s narrow ideological political agenda.

Two of the largest financial contributors to the OAS - the currently left-wing governments of Mexico and Argentina - have also thrown their weight behind Espinosa. The third and another contender for the position of SG is the Ambassador of Peru to the US, Hugo de Zela, who was nominated by Peru. Peru has also been disappointed by the positions taken by Almagro and decided to field a candidate against him. De Zela is campaigning on a reform platform that would address the hemispheric challenges.

The fact that smear campaigns have been launched against Espinosa is indicative of the importance attached to who takes over the reins at the helm of the OAS for the next five years. The smear campaign has been notably vicious, and has included false narratives such as the one which alleged that “the Government of China is paying her to seek the OAS job.” Another smear was the one that alleged that Espinosa’s husband Eduardo Mangas was a close advisor to Daniel Ortega’s “anti-democratic regime in Nicaragua.” Again a slight against one of the region’s left-wing governments.

Those countries which are supporting Espinosa’s bid are seeking a return to a consensus-building approach, and to move away from the current imposition by powerful governments of their will on other states through coercion or influence peddling. 

The stakes have never been higher for the region, and it is a contest still too close to call. If Almagro is re-elected the OAS will act as the long arm of US foreign policy in the region. If Espinosa is successful she is likely to usher in a new independence of the OAS as the primary Latin American organisation. Espinosa would steer the continent in a more even-handed manner and negate the impulses of the superpower to the north to determine the electoral outcomes and political dynamics of countries in the region. The agenda of the Trump administration too often runs contrary to the interests of ordinary people in the region.

Shannon Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor

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