Next leader of the Organization of American States still an Open QuestionBy: COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez
- Corruption emerges as a major hemispheric characteristic.
- A below-the-surface battle has broken out in the race to be the next Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS) after previously-elected Miguel Angel Rodríguez stunned the regional organization by resigning from his post on October 15. Rodríguez had been caught up in a scandal involving a $2.2 million bribe by a French cell-phone giant while president of Costa Rica.
- Rodriguez’s resignation once again raises the question of whether a former head of state should lead the OAS, as some deem the credentials suitable to be a Latin American president as an anathema when it comes to heading the OAS Secretariat.
- The OAS post requires a person of stature who possesses integrity, follow-through, a sense of balance and a keen understanding of the inner workings of a large organization. To the contrary, presidents tend to be ceremonial, if not imperial, seeking public plaudits rather than administering on a day-to-day basis as a servitor to the OAS’ Permanent Council. Individuals who possess such qualities needed to be a successful Secretary General include Enrique Iglesias, President of the Inter-American Development Bank, and Didier Opertti, Uruguay’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
- So far, former President of El Salvador Francisco Flores is the only candidate who has received the backing from a number of nations for the OAS’ top post.
- The U.S. Department of State may have compromised itself by failing to sufficiently investigate rumors regarding malfeasance during the Rodríguez presidency, before endorsing him for the OAS post.
- The Rodríguez scandal has raised questions over the degree of confidence the international community can have in the OAS’ institutional capacity to promote democracy, integration and development in the Western Hemisphere.
- Corruption is hardly a novel occurrence in the far from morally spotless country of Costa Rica, which has once again proven that it hardly deserves its sobriquet of being the “Switzerland of Latin America.”
- UPDATE: Today, December 7, Mexican President Vicente Fox announced that Mexico will nominate current Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez for Secretary-General
This Press Memorandum incorporates some elements of a previous COHA release from October 29, 2004 (PR 04.79) which was withdrawn from our website in order to include more up-to-date information and to remove some details that could have been subject to misinterpretation.
The resignation of former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) as Secretary-General of the OAS after only a few weeks in office, has pitched the regional organization into perhaps the greatest crisis of its history. Less than three weeks after he assumed his new post as OAS chief, the Costa Rican newspaper La Nación reported his involvement in a blockbuster illicit transaction involving his long-time protégé, José Antonio Lobo Solera, and the French telecommunications company Alcatel. Rodríguez is accused of receiving a major portion of a $2.2 million “prize” that Lobo obtained from Alcatel when the latter served as head of the Instituto Costarricence de Electricidad (ICE). This bribe was paid to facilitate the granting of a major cellular phone contract to the company for service in Costa Rica. The disgraced Rodríguez formally stepped down from his OAS post on October 15.
With Rodríguez currently incarcerated in San José, a new battle has started over who will succeed him in Washington. Unfortunately, as has been the case in the past (particularly with the election of César Gaviria as Secretary-General in 1994), the U.S. will play a disproportionately large role in choosing the next leader of the OAS. The problem is that what is good for Washington’s self interests does not necessarily translate into the best interests of the region.
Potential candidates abound
A number of OAS member nations are taking advantage of the unexpected opening to have one of their own contend to be the new OAS chief. Peru’s national newspaper, the daily La República, published on October 14 a list of worthy contenders. The list includes current President of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Enrique Iglesias of Uruguay; former Peruvian president Valentín Paniagua, current Chilean Minister of the Interior José Miguel Insulza, former Brazilian president Francisco Henrique Cardoso and former president of El Salvador, Francisco Flores. Other media sources have come forth with additional candidates. Guatemalan newspaper La Hora, mentioned in its October 13 issue that Ambassador Gert Rosenthal (current Guatemalan Permanent Representative to the United Nations) was a likely candidate. Honduras’ El Heraldo has published several articles about Tegucigalpa’s candidate, Carlos López Contreras, a former chancellor and current candidate for vice-president in the upcoming November 2005 presidential elections. Meanwhile, Argentina’s Telam news agency, according to the BBC, reported that Deputy Foreign Minister Jorge Tatiana will emerge as Argentina’s candidate for the OAS position.
While any number of former Latin American presidents might throw their hats into the race, the question deserving to be posed is whether a former president is automatically the most qualified person for the OAS post. A recently published editorial in the Los Angeles Times (“Latin America’s Search,” October 20) suggested that: “someone of the stature of [Ernesto] Zedillo [former President of Mexico] or Cardoso would be able to reform the institution’s bureaucracy and bolster its profile.” However, this formula might be inappropriate for the regional body. Even the best of the hemispheric presidents (which may rule out Zedillo and Cardoso) are likely to bring impaired traits to the job. This was certainly the case regarding the recently retired Gaviria, who, before his two terms as Secretary-General, served as president of Colombia. Gaviria exemplified the negative characteristics associated with presidential behavior and expectations. Functionaries, like deputy ministers or leaders of major regional or international agencies, such as Iglesias of the IDB, with long administrative experiences, may be better prepared to make quick decisions on an objective basis when crises arise and there is no room for favoritism or politics. Electing another former head of state as Secretary-General is likely to only leave the organization in a sea of unnecessary bureaucracy and pomp. Such an event will continue the decorative chorus represented by former presidents instead of installing someone who will be a humble servant for the hemisphere’s needs and not aspire to be its master.
According to OAS bylaws, the Assistant Secretary-General becomes the organization’s acting chief if the Secretary-General resigns, and remains in that position until a new leader is inaugurated. To elect a new Secretary-General, any member state can call for an emergency meeting (which can occur at any time) or the acting Secretary-General (American Luigi Einaudi) may remain as “caretaker” until the next regular session of the General Assembly, which is scheduled to be held in June 2005 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Why Iglesias could be the Right Man for the Job
Enrique V. Iglesias was re-elected last year to his fourth term as the head of the IDB, a position that he has held since 1988. During his long tenure, Iglesias has demonstrated extraordinary leadership qualities and a faultless level of personal honesty, which today’s crippled OAS sorely requires. At the IDB, Iglesias took a moribund institution known for its cronyism, low professional standards and complete deference to U.S. policymakers, and converted it into one of Washington’s most respected bodies. Among Iglesias’ past responsibilities, he has served as the Executive Secretary (1972-1985) of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) and afterwards as Uruguay’s Minister of Foreign Affairs (1985-88). He also has served as Assistant Secretary to the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (Latin American Episcopal Council).
Central American Pandemonium
The one candidate who officially has received the backing of a range of nations for his bid for the OAS office is former president of El Salvador Francisco Flores. At a recent meeting of Central American heads of state in San José, Costa Rica, Flores was selected by several of the countries to be the regional candidate for the top post at the OAS. Flores was one of the initial candidates to succeed Gaviria but he withdrew early in the race upon realizing that he lacked sufficient support from other nations. In any case, Flores, often seen as a political lightweight, fails to meet the necessary test of possessing enough diplomatic stature, experience and class to lead the regional organization.
Although Salvadoran president Antonio Saca has observed that Flores would be an ideal candidate to replace Rodríguez, Venezuelan officials have repeatedly refused to support his choice, claiming Flores has had too cozy a relationship with Washington while in office. Indeed, he was one of the few Latin American leaders who recognized the Caracas coup that briefly ousted the democratically-elected Hugo Chávez in April 2002. In fact, Venezuelan officials are not alone in their opposition to Flores. El Salvador’s leftist political party Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) has also voiced its opposition to his candidacy. During his time in office, Flores received much criticism for his Mano Dura (Tough Hand) Plan, which attempted to crack down on gang violence in El Salvador at the expense of its citizens’ human rights, and did little to effectively address the crime problem.
Furthermore, support for Flores is not broad even in Central America. At the recent Central American summit, Flores received the backing of four nations; Gert Rosenthal obtained two, while former Honduran Foreign Affairs Minister Lopez Contreras obtained only the support of his own president, Ricardo Maduro. The lack of consensus caused heightened tension in the area, particularly on the part of Saca who insisted on a regional candidate (meaning Flores) but had now seen his plans almost completely run over. Electing a new Secretary-General might prove to be more of a dividing than unifying exercise for Central America, and it could provoke hard feelings. Such an advent does not seem quite likely, given the volatile history of the region, particularly between Honduras and El Salvador. Both countries already had fought a war against each other in 1969, commonly known as the “Soccer War,” which left around 3,000 dead. The bellicose Honduran media appears to be attempting, once again, to breathe new life into the ancient differences between the two nations.
An article published in the Honduran newspaper La Prensa on November 24 goes into great detail in citing different factors against Flores’ OAS candidacy. The article stresses that “Flores was the only head of state in the world who supported the April 2002 coup by Pedro Carmona.” The article also mentions Flores’ blunders in handling the Salvadoran economy and taking the unpopular act of sending troops to Iraq to support the U.S.-led coalition there. Finally, there are unconfirmed reports that Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco has declared that he will not support Flores’ candidacy unless he is first cleared of serious charges being formulated against him in his nation. A call made by COHA to the Costa Rican embassy in Washington and the Costa Rican mission to the OAS could not confirm these reports, with diplomats there explaining that they have not received any official instructions from San José on the matter. Flores is being accused, but not yet charged, with bank fraud (in the banks Crédito Inmobilario SA and CREDICLUB), money laundering and defalcating funds from the National Administration of Sewers (Administración Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados).
Other Possible Contenders
In Lima, former President Paniagua is widely rumored to be its top candidate for Secretary-General. His selection would greatly improve Peru’s global standing after more than a decade of it being besmirched under the dictatorial rule of Alberto Fujimori, human rights violations and the hounding of U.S. political prisoner Lori Berenson and incompetent governance under its current president, Alejandro Toledo. Paniagua served as his country’s highly admired transitional president from 2000, after Fujimori’s resignation, until presidential elections in 2001. A lawyer by profession and leader of the Popular Action Party, Paniagua is one of the most popular and well-regarded leaders in Peru’s recent history. During his short tenure as interim president, he bucked the temptation to pursue a partisan agenda, and instead sought national reconciliation. This wise strategy earned him the respect of even his political rivals and led to quality cabinet selections during his rule, such as naming two-time UN Secretary-General Javiér Perez de Cuellar as his prime minister. Despite his enormous popularity among voters, Paniagua humbly declined to run for president in 2001 to avoid interfering with Peru’s democratic electoral process. Paniagua is likely to run in Peru’s 2006 presidential elections unless an appointment to the OAS’ top post waylays his plans. Some Peruvian legislators oppose his possible OAS candidacy because, as a serious contender for the country’s presidency, they do not want to see him wasted on the OAS.
There were some rumors that Knowlson Gift, Foreign Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, was going to be his nation’s candidate for the OAS. However, he has denied any interest in the position. Regarding CARICOM, the 15-member regional organization of mainly English-speaking countries, the only possible other candidate being discussed so far is Suriname’s experienced diplomat, Albert R. Ramdim, for the post of Assistant Secretary-General.
In the last weeks, Venezuela’s Homeland for Everyone Party has nominated three candidates for the OAS Secretary-General position: they include Vice President José Rangel, the new foreign minister Ali Rodríguez (who is also president of Venezuela’s state-run oil company), and Venezuelan ambassador to the OAS, Jorge Valero. However, all three have yet to receive official backing from Chávez.
A New Opportunity for Chile?
Perhaps the country that could gain or lose the most in terms of prestige is Chile. Several years ago, Santiago embarked on an ambitious policy aimed at casting a larger hemispheric shadow for itself. Santiago’s push for a greater leadership role in the region began to bear fruit when the UN chose Juan Gabriel Valdés, a former Chilean foreign minister and Ambassador to the UN, to be Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special representative to Haiti. Santiago’s main strategy has been to link itself more closely to Washington. Nevertheless, its diplomatic offensive suffered a telling blow when current Interior Minister José Miguel Insulza failed to obtain U.S. support to succeed Gaviria. The message that Washington seemed to be sending to Santiago at the time was that Chile would be well advised to soothe diplomatic tensions with neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, before aspiring to become a regional force. Additionally, Washington was less than amused by Insulza’s public opposition to the Iraq war. Now Santiago has another opportunity to nominate a Chilean to the Secretariat of the OAS. The likely Chilean candidates could be Insulza or Soledad Alvear, a former foreign minister and also a likely presidential candidate. This past October 18, the Chilean daily El Mostrador published an extensive report on relations between Santiago and Caracas, pointing out that any eventual candidacy of Insulza would most likely have Venezuelan support.
The “Rodríguez” factor and national interests
Multiple factors have come into play to determine which country’s candidate will obtain the support of other member states. COHA interviewed government officials from a number of nations in order to comprehend what has been going on behind closed doors in the quest to find a new regional leader. Earlier in the year, many OAS members seemed to have decided that the next leader of the organization should be a Central American because the U.S. originally had backed Rodríguez for the post before he resigned in disgrace. His sudden departure created a division regarding the organization’s consensus over electing another prominent Central American for the OAS position. An Ecuadorian government official best explained the current situation: “Ecuador, as well as the rest of Latin America is still traumatized and ashamed after unanimously electing Rodríguez, only to see him resign [a month] later.” He went on to explain that Ecuador will not present any candidate to the OAS and is still in talks with other governments about which candidate to support.
However, Quito will not be pressured into accepting any particular nominee until a thorough background check has been carried out. A Mexican official interviewed by COHA said his country in the last few weeks has decided that it is open to suggestions regarding who should head the OAS; in other words, Foreign Affairs Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez has indicated that Mexico will not necessarily support Flores, the candidate nominated by several Central American states, which would represent a significant shift in policy by Mexico City. It is now clear that Mexico has no intention of supporting a Central American candidate given the fact that there is no consensus and will prefer to instead nominate one of its own nationals. Meanwhile, Belize will not present any candidate of its own and will work with other Central American nations for a single candidate. COHA also contacted the governments of Venezuela and Barbados, both of which stated that they still have made no official decision on the matter. It is quite clear though, that Caracas was not pleased at all with the selection of Flores as the Central American candidate. The Barbados official explained that CARICOM has no position on the issue and Bridgetown will not present any candidate of its own. Given that Barbados’ vote is usually determined by the U.S. Department of State, one can expect that Barbados will defer to whoever Washington tends to favor.
In Peru, the Toledo government wants former President Paniagua to be its candidate for the OAS. If Paniagua runs and wins, it will be in Toledo’s best interests because he will be removing a formidable contender from the presidential race while taking credit for helping a Peruvian head the OAS. If Paniagua looses, this cannot help but tar his political feathers. Meanwhile, it is still unclear what will occur in Uruguay. Montevideo is possibly behind Iglesias, but the recent presidential election won by Tabaré Vázquez brought a committed leftist government to office. The new president might feel uncomfortable with Iglesias’ neo-liberal economics and might prefer a candidate more attuned to his unorthodox policies.
The current discussions taking place in regional capitals can be interpreted in various ways. On the one hand, they can be seen as evidence that nations are being much more cautious about which nominees should be presented to the OAS, favorite sons or not. They are taking into account not only the individual’s background (to avoid another Rodríguez-like debacle), but also if they have enough clout to be seen as a serious contender. On the other hand, this delay in filling the OAS office can be seen as a sign of its increasing irrelevancy, which has made some Latin American nations become complacent, no longer seeing particular political kudos taking place when it comes to who is elected to head the body.
Washington should have known better than to back Rodríguez
Recent events at the OAS have once again demonstrated that it is ideology, rather than rationality, that usually fuels the State Department’s Latin American policy. The White House originally was quick to support Rodríguez, not because he was necessarily the most qualified candidate for the job, but because Washington wanted a thoroughly tractable official with whom to deal. With all of its resources, intelligence capabilities and influence, it is somewhat embarrassing that the State Department and its embassy in San José were not aware of the details of Rodríguez’ involvement in the corruption scandal before announcing their support for him. Furthermore, scandal at the presidential level was for years a known fact of life for San José’s cognoscenti.
This is not the first time that such a scandal has seized Costa Rica. The country, somewhat fallaciously, has long been considered a hemispheric model for its peaceful demilitarization, an extensive and efficient social service net and an exceptionally high literacy rate. As such, Costa Rica was thought to be far above the regional norms for the kind of rampant bribery and corruption that have chronically plagued its neighbors. Yet the recent release of credible evidence that three presidents, as well as numerous high-ranking administrators have been involved in extensive money laundering schemes has resulted in immense damage to the perception of what Costa Rica is really like. If the litany of scandals continues to ripen at its current rate, many believe that Costa Rica will run the risk of irreparably damaging its reputation as a squeaky-clean democracy. COHA extensively reported on the 1994 election of U.S.-backed César Gaviria, which ended up pressuring the front-runner at the time, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bernt Niehaus, to withdraw from the race for Secretary-General. This occurred after Washington persuaded a number of CARICOM countries to switch their support from Niehaus to Gaviria. Before the Clinton administration intervened, Niehaus had the support of 23 member countries (including 13 Caribbean votes) and his election seemed to be all but assured. The White House’s sudden show of support for Gaviria, who was leaving the presidential office in Bogotá after serving a mediocre mandate, persuaded several Caribbean nations to abruptly throw their support to the Colombian candidate. In doing so, Washington let it be known that it considered Niehaus to be lacking the leadership qualifications necessary for the post.
An article published by Pablo Bachelet in the Miami Herald on November 24 included an interview with the US ambassador to the OAS, John Maisto. Maisto explained that “there is a reason and strong argument for a Central American Secretary-General,” and later added that “[Washington’s] preference has always been for a former president as Secretary-General.” While this is not a straightforward declaration of support for El Salvador’s Flores, it must be noted that the latter is currently the only past or present Central American head of state running for the post.
Washington would be well-advised to resist continuing to play a counter-productive kingmaker role in Latin America when it comes to crowning a prospective OAS Secretary-General. Rather, it should exchange this role for one that would display some respect for the sensibilities of other regional countries. It is unfortunate that the State Department continues to view regional and international bodies, such as the OAS, as vehicles that principally should advance U.S. national interests, rather than as a means to serve the common good of the hemisphere.
A Dark Future
During Gaviria’s long and often frosty tenure, the Secretary-General’s position projected a pompous style and an implacable appetite for petty power, in both the patronizing manner in which he treated the OAS’ Permanent Council and the cultivation of a lifestyle that was far more redolent of that of a Maharajah than a senior civil servant. Such an experience should further spotlight the question of whether or not former Latin American presidents have the optimum background to prepare for the position of OAS Secretary-General, or whether it is the wrong track for any would-be candidate. Unfortunately for the OAS, capable individuals like Iglesias and Uruguay’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Didier Opertti, who would seem best equipped to lead this agency, are the ones most reluctant to do so. It is quite clear that no capable individual wants to captain a floundering vessel like the OAS, which helps explain how inappropriate back-stabbing candidates like former President Flores surface as contenders.
The frequent irrelevancy and repeated inefficiency of the OAS is more obvious today than perhaps ever before. One need not look beyond the OAS’s atrocious handling of the recent “regime-change” debacle in Haiti for an indication of the organization’s current impotence. Gaviria’s decade-long tenure as Secretary-General showed little promise, which helped confirm the widespread and accurate belief that the OAS is shamelessly maneuvered by the White House. This perception is not helped by the fact that the present acting Secretary-General, Luigi Einaudi, is almost a career-long American political appointee who came to that post after many years serving on the U.S. delegation to the OAS and related positions. In fact, he won considerable renown as a wheeler-dealer whose talents were best used to maintain himself in high office and only incidentally for the hemisphere’s good. But the more important question which deserves to be posed at this point is whether it is appropriate to have an American holding such a high post, where his or her presence can have such an undue influence over the Secretary-General and the Permanent Council. This might not necessarily be attributable to their natural talents, but simply because they come to their office wrapped in the American flag. In major crises like that which recently occurred in Haiti or Venezuela, the OAS remained almost completely silent, waiting for Washington’s tilt on the issue. Rodríguez’s fall only adds to the claim that the OAS may be seen as a marginal agency, capable at best of being only collaterally useful, and fatally flawed by corruption of both a major and minor kind.
For more information on this matter, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) recently published a press release by Research Fellow Alex Sanchez (PR 04.64) on Rodríguez’s election to the top post of the OAS and the challenges he would face. Senior Research Fellow Rebecca Evans has published two press releases on the presidential elections in Uruguay (PR 04.76 & 80). Research Associate David R. Kolker published a press release on U.S.-Chilean relations, Chile’s foreign policy and its effect on José Miguel Insulza’s bid to become Secretary-General (PR 04.71). Research Associates Emily Alves and Mike Johnson will shortly be issuing a press release on the Rodríguez scandal in Costa Rica. Press releases from the 1994 election of César Gaviria as OAS Secretary-General can be found in COHA’s Press Release archives.