Who will be the next leader of the Organization of American States?

By: W. Alejandro Sanchez, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
  • A battle has broken out in the race for the next Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) after the recently elected Miguel Angel Rodríguez resigned from his post on October 15. He stepped down as Secretary General after a scandal broke loose four weeks ago involving a bribe he accepted while he was President of Costa Rica.
  • Whether a former head of state can lead the OAS is a contentious issue, as some deem the traits demonstrated by Latin American presidents to be undesirable for the OAS Secretariat. The OAS needs a man of stature who possesses integrity, leadership and a keen understanding of the inner workings of a large organization. That man is unquestionably the president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Enrique Iglesias.
  • The U.S. Department of State should have investigated Rodriguez’s presidency before endorsing him for the OAS post.
  • This scandal has made the international community skeptical of the OAS’ ability to promote democracy, integration and development in the Western Hemisphere.

The resignation of former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (President from 1998-2002) as Secretary General of the OAS has pitched the regional organization into perhaps the greatest crisis of its history. Less than three weeks after Rodríguez assumed his new post as OAS chief, Costa Rican newspaper La Nación reported his involvement in a mysterious transaction with his long-time protégé, José Antonio Lobo Solera, and the French communications company Alcatel. Rodriguez is accused of receiving part of a $2.2 million “prize” that Lobo obtained from Alcatel when the latter served as head of the Instituto Costarricence de Electricidad (ICE). The accusations allege that the bribe was paid to expedite the granting of a major cellular phone contract for Costa Rica. The disgraced Rodriguez formally stepped down from his OAS post on October 15.

With Rodríguez currently under house arrest in San José, a new battle has started over who will succeed him. Rumors are currently flying around the region concerning who the likely contenders for the top post might be. Unfortunately, as has been the case in the past (particularly in 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 is rarely good for Latin America.

Potential candidates abound
Many OAS member nations are jumping at the unexpected opportunity to have one of their nationals become the new OAS chief. Peru’s national newspaper, La República, published on October 14 a list of the people considered to be possible candidates. The list includes current President of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Enrique Iglesias of Uruguay; former President of Peru Valentín Paniagua, current Chilean Minister of the Interior José Miguel Insulza, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former president of El Salvador Francisco Flores. So far no one has officially declared their candidacy.

While any number of former Latin American presidents could throw their hats into the race, it must be asked whether a former president is the most qualified person for the post. An editorial recently published in the Los Angeles Times (“Latin America’s Search,” October 20) mentioned 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 prove wrong for the regional body. Even the best of presidents (which may rule out Zedillo and Cardoso) is likely to bring the worst of traits to the job. This was certainly the case for the recently retired Gaviria, who before his tenure as Secretary General served as president of Colombia. Gaviria exemplifies the damaging characteristics associated with presidential behavior. During the 2002 Venezuelan coup that temporarily ousted President Hugo Chávez, Gaviria and his staff took too long to act, costing the organization much prestige. Functionaries, like deputy ministers or leaders of major agencies, such as Iglesias of the IDB, are best prepared to make quick and correct decisions when crises arise. Electing another former head of state as Secretary General will only leave the organization sinking in a sea of unnecessary bureaucracy.

According to OAS bylaws, the Assistant Secretary General becomes the organization’s interim chief if the Secretary General resigns, and remains so until a new leader is inaugurated. To elect a new Secretary General, a member state can call for an emergency meeting (which can occur at any time) or Assistant Secretary General Luigi Einaudi will remain as “caretaker” until the next regular assembly, which is scheduled to take place June 2005 in Washington.

Why Iglesias is 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 and personal honesty, which today’s crippled OAS sorely needs. At the IDB, Iglesias took an 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 has also served as Assistant Secretary to the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (Latin American Episcopal Council). Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), relates that when he was on CEPAL’s staff under Iglesias in Chile (during the Allende administration), the Uruguayan was the only member of the organization who did not convert his salary (which was in dollars) into escudos on the black market (escudos, Chile’s currency at the time, had a 4-1 exchange rate to the dollar).

Other Possible Candidates

In Peru, former President Paniagua is widely rumored to be a top candidate for the Secretary General position. His selection would greatly improve Peru’s global standing after more than a decade of dictatorial rule under Alberto Fujimori and incompetent governance under the current president, Alejandro Toledo. Paniagua served as his country’s transitional president from 2000, when Fujimori resigned, until the presidential elections of 2001. A lawyer by profession and leader of the Acción Popular (Popular Action) party, Paniagua is one of the most popular and widely accepted presidents in Peru’s history. During his short tenure, he bucked the temptation to pursue a partisan agenda, instead seeking national reconciliation. This wise strategy earned him the support of political rivals and led to quality cabinet selections, such as naming two-time UN Secretary General Javiér Perez de Cuellar as his Prime Minister. Despite enormous popularity among voters, Paniagua humbly declined to run for president in 2001 to avoid interfering with the democratic process. Paniagua is likely to run in Peru’s 2006 presidential elections, unless an appointment to the OAS’s top post changes his plans.

Among the other potential candidates receiving attention is former President of El Salvador Francisco Flores. Following the news of Rodríguez’s resignation, current Salvadoran President Elias Antonio Saca opined that a Central American should be selected as Secretary General. Latin America News Digest recently reported that Miguel Hakim, Mexican Undersecretary of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs, said that Mexico would support Flores if he is nominated as a common candidate by other Central American countries. Flores was one of the initial candidates to succeed Gaviria but he withdrew early in the race upon realizing that he lacked enough support from other nations. In any case, Flores, often seen as a political lightweight, never possessed much diplomatic stature and is therefore unfit to lead the regional organization.

Although Saca has hinted that Flores would be an ideal candidate to replace Rodríguez, Venezuelan officials have repeatedly refused to support Flores’ candidacy, claiming he had too cozy a relationship with Washington while in office. Indeed, he was one of the few Latin American leaders who recognized the coup that briefly ousted the democratically-elected Chávez in April 2002. Furthermore, Venezuelan officials are not alone in their opposition to Flores. The leftist Salvadoran political party Frente Farabundo Martí Para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) has also voiced its opposition to Flores’ 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 his citizens’ human rights, but did little to effectively address the crime problem.In the last week, Venezuela’s Homeland for Everyone Party (PPT) nominated three candidates for OAS Secretary General: Vice President José Rangel, current president of Venezuela’s state-run oil company Ali Rodriguez and Venezuelan ambassador to the OAS Jorge Valero. However, all three have yet to receive official backing from Chávez.

A new opportunity for Chile in its quest for regional hegemony

Perhaps the country that could gain the most from the current OAS crisis is Chile. Beginning several years ago, Santiago embarked on an ambitious policy aimed at casting a larger shadow for itself in the hemisphere. 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 was to link itself more closely to Washington. Nevertheless, its diplomatic offensive suffered a severe 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 it must ease diplomatic tensions with neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Argentina before aspiring to become a regional power. Additionally, Washington was less than amused by Insulza’s opposition to the Iraq war. Now Santiago has another opportunity to nominate a Chilean for the Secretariat of the OAS. The likely Chilean candidates would be Insulza or Soledad Alvear, a former Foreign Minister.

Washington should have known better than to back Rodriguez
Recent events at the OAS have once again demonstrated that ideology, rather than rationality, fuels the State Department. The White House originally was quick to support Rodríguez not because he was necessarily the most qualified 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’ alleged involvement in the corruption scandal before announcing support for him.

This is not the first time that such a scandal has seized the OAS. COHA reported on the 1994 election of U.S.-backed Gaviria, which forced the front-runner at the time, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Bernd Niehaus, to withdraw from the race. This occurred after Washington persuaded a number of CARICOM (the official body of the Caribbean community) 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 assured. The White House’s sudden show of support for Gaviria, who had recently left the presidential office in Bogotá after serving a mediocre mandate, persuaded several Caribbean nations to almost immediately throw their support to the Colombian. In doing so, Washington let it be known that it considered Niehaus as lacking the leadership qualifications for the post.

Washington would be well-advised to resist continuing to play kingmaker in Latin America and begin exercising good judgment and respect when it comes to whom it will support as the hemisphere’s next leader. It is unfortunate that the State Department continues to view a number of regional and international agencies, such as the OAS, as agencies that should advance U.S. national security, rather than as vehicles created to better the common good of the hemisphere.

A Dark Future
Rodríguez’ resignation is not an isolated case – in 1984, Secretary General Alejandro Orfila of Argentina renounced his position after admitting that he had received funds from the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. Orfila was hardly the only OAS Secretary General with delusions of grandeur. During Gaviria’s long and often frosty tenure, the Secretary General presided in a pompous style and with an implacable appetite for power, in both the patronizing manner in which he treated the OAS’ Permanent Council and the luxurious nature of his personal life style. Such experiences should further spotlight the question of whether or not former Latin American presidents have the optimum background to occupy the position of OAS Secretary General.

The frequent irrelevancy and constant inefficiency of the OAS is more obvious today than 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 achieved nothing tangible beyond a confirmation of the widespread and accurate belief held by many that the OAS is shamelessly influenced by the White House. In fact, in major crises like what recently occurred in Haiti or Venezuela, the OAS stood silent, waiting for Washington’s instructions. Rodríguez’s fall only adds to the claim that the OAS is an irrelevant agency, capable at best of being marginally useful. If it does not have a person who is at once a servitor and a leader, then it will only suffer additional defeats. It will be up to the next Secretary General to be a true leader and provide the Organization of American States with the skills necessary to make this agency, for the first time in its existence, a major player in a continent plagued with problems.

By: W. Alejandro Sanchez, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

For more information on this matter, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) recently published a press release by Senior Research Fellow W. Alejandro Sanchez (PR 04.64) on Rodriguez’ election to the top post of the OAS and the challenges he would face. Research Associate David R. Kolker also published a press release on U.S.-Chilean relations, Chile’s foreign policy (PR 04.71) and its effect on José Miguel Insulza’s bid to become Secretary General. Press releases from the 1994 election of Cesar Gaviria as OAS Secretary General can be found in COHA’s Press Release archives at http://www.coha.org

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