Hemispheric Checkmate: Chile’s Insulza Likely to Become

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
  • Monday, April 11 has been declared the official date for an “extraordinary” session of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) to elect a new secretary-general.
  • José Miguel Insulza, current Chilean minister of the interior, is the favorite of three candidates aspiring for the OAS post. The other contenders are former president of El Salvador, Francisco Flores, and Mexico’s minister of foreign affairs, Luis Ernesto Derbez—both unlikely contenders at this point.
  • Questions remain about the qualifications of each candidate, including Insulza, given his recent trip to Haiti and the solicitude he has shown Chile’s former, General Augusto Pinochet.
  • Flores’ likely defeat would set an important precedent -as the U.S.’s preferetti for the OAS’ top office, it would represent a blow to Washington’s prestige.
  • A Caribbean Community (CARICOM) meeting recently held in Panamaribo, Suriname (February 16-17), ended with the majority of Caribbean leaders declaring their support for Insulza.
  • In the hemispheric chess game of electing a new OAS secretary-general, the three governments that have nominated candidates unexpectedly called for an “extraordinary” meeting of the OAS’ General Assembly. It had been presumed that a new secretary-general would be elected at the General Assembly’s next regular meeting, scheduled for June in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. However, after a meeting among the OAS ambassadors of the governments of the three aspiring candidates, April 11 was chosen as the date to elect a new OAS head. Of the three contenders, José Miguel Insulza, Chile’s minister of the interior, is far and away the frontrunner for the post. While Chilean President Ricardo Lagos would likely view Insulza’s election as a victory for his administration, others would be disappointed with his selection.

    José Miguel Insulza
    Insulza is a socialist who gained considerable fame throughout Latin America for his outspoken criticism of the U.S-led war in Iraq. He has obtained the support of regional powerhouses Argentina and Brazil, as well as Ecuador, Uruguay (from newly elected president Tabaré Vázquez) and Venezuela. However, some analysts suggest that Insulza’s broad support stems more from those countries’ national interests rather than from their belief that Insulza is the right man for the job. There are several incidents that support this realpolitik interpretation. While Insulza gained wide respect by openly opposing the war in Iraq, he recently visited Haiti, a nation which in February 2004, with U.S. support, deposed its constitutionally elected president and imposed a controversial interim government headed by Prime Minister Gerard Latortue. Notwithstanding Latortue’s dubious credentials, Insulza visited Port-au-Prince to lobby him for Haiti’s support in the OAS race. Apparently Insulza did not see the contradiction of seeking the aid of an unlawful government in Haiti while touring other Caribbean states proclaiming his intentions to defend democracy.

    If the allegations regarding Insulza’s protective attitude toward former dictator Augusto Pinochet prove to be true, this would make the minister someone of questionable integrity. The Chilean-based Ethics Commission Against Torture reported that Insulza used his influence to assure that the former dictator retained immunity to avoid being tried for crimes against humanity by other countries. The report explains that it was Insulza, while serving as foreign affairs minister, who worked overtime to free Pinochet from his house detention in Great Britain five years ago. Insulza cited the former dictator’s declining health promising that, if he was allowed to return to Chile, he would be tried. When the trial proceeded, however, Pinochet initially was not accused of human rights violations – including the “disappearances” of several thousand Chileans but of tax evasion. It is unclear why Insulza would support Pinochet, given the fact that he himself was in exile during Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

    Germán F. Westphal, a professor of Modern Languages & Linguistics at the University of Maryland, has brought up another disturbing point. He reported how Insulza had been reluctant to help him find Boris Weisfeiler, a U.S. citizen of Russian origin who vanished while on a hiking trip near the border between Chile and Argentina in early January, 1985. Westphal explains that “according to some declassified U.S. documents and an informant’s report, Weisfeiler was detained by Pinochet’s soldiers under the assumption that he was a Russian or Jewish ‘spy’ and taken to the notorious German center called Colonia Dignidad [then run by an indicted child molester Paul Schaeffer] […] Weisfeiler has been missing ever since.” Dr. Westphal emphasized that “Minister José M. Insulza has been completely oblivious to the case and ignored it with absolute callousness, without even taking into consideration the international dimension […] As a point of international reference, it is possible to say that the Vietnam authorities have been more cooperative, sensitive and forthcoming with respect to the U.S. soldiers missing in action than Minister Insulza has been in connection to Boris Weisfeiler’s case.”

    The Rest of the Field
    Francisco Flores, correctly viewed as a political lightweight, repeatedly has been accused of tolerating corruption and human rights violations while president of El Salvador (1999-2004), particularly regarding his Mano Dura policy to crack down on street gangs. Furthermore, the former president is currently facing accusations of bank fraud (in the banks Crédito Inmobilario SA and CREDICLUB), money laundering and stealing funds from the National Administration of Sewers. Despite this tarnished record, Flores has won the backing of Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the United States. It would be a major blow to Washington if he is not elected. Would the U.S. be inclined to continue paying 60 percent of the OAS’ budget as patiently as before?

    Ernesto Derbez, the Mexican minister of foreign affairs, was a relatively late addition to the race. Originally Derbez intended to run for Mexico’s presidency in 2006 but President Vicente Fox wants his protégé, Minister of Interior Santiago Creel, to be his successor. As a consolation prize, Derbez was persuaded to enter the OAS race. Up until now, Derbez has gained the support of Belize, Bolivia, Canada, Honduras and the Caribbean islands of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The Mexican media speculates that if Derbez is defeated in the OAS race, he may set his sights on another post that soon may become vacant: president of the Inter-American Development Bank.

    Suriname, CARICOM and Albert Randim
    In the last two months, the governments of the three secretary-general candidates sent requests to Suriname for support of their respective nominees. In addition, Chilean President Lagos visited the region in late February, around the time of a CARICOM summit of heads of state. If anything, such attention demonstrated the torrid competition for votes in the OAS race. Suriname, realistically, not the first nation one thinks of when it comes to being a strategic player in hemispheric relations, yet it has become invaluable for the simple reason that its vote conceivably could tilt the scale in favor of any of the candidates. Despite the mandatory proclamations the candidates now might make about Suriname’s temporary importance, the fact remains that none of the three governments have a permanent embassy in Paramaribo. Mexico’s embassy in Trinidad & Tobago services affairs relating to Suriname, as does Chile’s embassy in Brazil, and El Salvador’s embassy in Venezuela.

    The sudden interest in Suriname stems from two new facts on the table. First, Suriname’s President Ronald Venetiaan is also the chair of CARICOM, which means that he holds significant influence with the other members of that body. Second, Suriname has nominated a candidate for the position of OAS assistant secretary-general, Ambassador Albert Randim. Not surprisingly, the governments of each of the candidates energetically have declared their support for him.

    CARICOM’s 16th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government held February 16-17 in Paramaribo, concluded with at least eight member states signaling their support for Insulza. Guyana’s president is reported to be one of the region’s most aggressive supporters of the Chilean candidate; however, this still might not be enough to guarantee Insulza the necessary votes of this bloc. Moreover, in order to get Haiti’s vote for the OAS contest, Insulza’s pandering to Latortue miffed several Caribbean leaders.

    Present Challenges
    If elected secretary-general, Insulza will face several immediate challenges. The continent is plagued with domestic turmoil that ideally the OAS should be involved with in a very committed way. The organization has been only timidly involved in the demilitarization of Colombia’s paramilitaries; the next secretary-general must be more directly engaged in the process. In addition, governmental crises in Ecuador and Bolivia have jeopardized their president’s tenure and could spark turmoil throughout the Andes. Furthermore, Insulza may have to be prepared to go against his own nation’s interests to promote the hemispheric good by addressing the access to the sea dispute between Bolivia and Chile as well as the demands by Chile’s indigenous Mapuches for greater autonomy.

    Furthermore, in light of the sudden importance with which Suriname is being treated, will the next OAS head address the recent demands made by the opposition, National Democratic Party (NDP), which accused the U.S. of interfering in the country’s electoral process scheduled for May 25? The State Department, through the U.S. Embassy in Suriname, has declared that the U.S. will sever relations with this nation if former dictator and NDP leader Desi Bouterse (1980-87) becomes the next president. The NDP has complained to CARICOM and the OAS about Washington’s influence on its national affairs.

    In his speech to the OAS’s Permanent Council last February, Insulza explained that “The security situation that we face in the hemisphere has changed. We face multidimensional challenges like terrorism […] We must improve the existent regional mechanisms such as the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) and the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism (CICTE).” It is important to mention that in his assessment, Insulza’s omission of sensitive issues could cost him votes; for example, he said nothing about the Inter-American Defense Board (IADB).

    The Never-ending Story
    As is customary, a candidate will be elected to the OAS not because of his program or his ideals, but because of narrowly defined national interests. Venezuela, for example, is backing Derbez instead of Flores because the latter was one of the few Latin American leaders to back the April 2002 coup against President Hugo Chávez. Likewise, Bolivia will not support Insulza because of the border and sea access dispute with Chile. Bolivia’s decision to back Derbez appears to be little more than an attempt to promote ties between La Paz and Mexico City. Any geopolitical analysis of the situation would show that it is far more beneficial for Bolivia to improve economic and political relations with Mexico than with a small nation like El Salvador (Bolivia does not even have an embassy in El Salvador). An additional factor is Bolivia’s huge natural gas reserves, some of which La Paz has arranged to export to Mexico.

    While Insulza appears to be the frontrunner, there still may be time for a last minute surprise like in the 1994 elections, since the voting is confidential (a nation can publicly declare its support for one candidate and vote for another). The Lagos administration and Insulza would be wise to keep this in mind before declaring an early victory.