OAS chief may resign to seek Chile’s presidency

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By Tyler Bridges

MEDELLIN, Colombia —
Two years before his term is scheduled to end, the general secretary of the Organization of American States is openly flirting with running for president of his native Chile.

”Everybody in politics wants to be president of his country,” José Miguel Insulza, 65, told The Miami Herald during a gathering this week of the organization’s general assembly.

But his political aspirations have ignited a debate about whether Insulza has tailored his OAS decisions with an eye toward the presidency of his nation.

”If you’re a presidential candidate, you feel pressed to follow certain policies for political ambitions,” said Larry Birns, director of the leftist-oriented Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. “Everybody knew from the beginning that he would run for president of Chile.”

Insulza said he won’t decide whether to run for president until after municipal elections in Chile in late October.

A moderate Socialist who served as minister of foreign affairs, the presidency and internal security in Chile before taking his current post three years ago, Insulza has particularly come under fire from critics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who believe the OAS leader has been soft on Chávez to avoid antagonizing the left in Chile.

”He has intelligence, experience, the pedigree and was a very courageous fighter against [former Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet,” Diego Arria, a former governor of Caracas now based in New York who is now a strong Chávez critic.

”He had all the credentials to be a great general secretary. But his personal ambition went ahead of his official responsibilities and duties as general secretary. He betrayed the trust the region gave him,” Arria said.

Some analysts defend Insulza, saying that he has tried to walk a fine line in a divided region.

”It’s hard for him to win,” Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, based in Washington. “To be effective, he has to get the support of member governments.”

Insulza did take on Chávez last year for closing the RCTV television station, which had been critical of the Venezuelan president. But Insulza has mostly remained silent while critics accused Chávez of trampling on freedom of the press, running roughshod over the executive and judicial branches in Venezuela and illegally seizing control of foreign-owned companies.

He also has remained neutral on an ongoing dispute between Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador sparked by a cross-border military raid that killed a Colombian rebel leader and produced computer files linking the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador to the rebel group, known as the FARC.

Insulza said he is well aware of the criticism from Chávez opponents.

”I get their e-mails every day,” Insulza said. “I respect their views. But I don’t share them. One thing Latin America can’t do is divide ourselves again. I have tried very hard to get along with Venezuela. I have tried to get along with the U.S. government, too.”

He added, “I am not a soldier. I don’t fight fire with fire. I am a fireman. They put out fires with water. That’s how I define my policy.”

The Washington-based OAS groups together the United States, Canada, Latin America (but not Cuba) and Caribbean countries — 34 member nations in all. It serves as a forum for hemispheric grievances, monitors elections and attempts to mediate disputes.

Insulza said he was reluctant to discuss his political aspirations with the Herald, arguing that preferred to focus on OAS business during the group’s three-day, 38th general assembly, which ended in Medellín on Tuesday.

But he said that his decision to run for the job currently held by President Michelle Bachelet would depend on his chances of becoming the candidate of the leftist Concertación coalition.

All four presidents of Chile since the country’s return to democracy in 1990 — including Bachelet — have been from the Concertación.

”I think I am well positioned in the Chilean polls,” Insulza said, although he acknowledged that he is not the front-runner.

A November-December poll for Centro de Estudios Publicos showed that 87 percent of Chileans could identify him — eighth highest in the country — and 48 percent viewed him favorably while only 20 percent viewed him unfavorably.

”He is well respected within all the parties that form the Concertación,” said Harald Beyer, the CEP’s Santiago-based pollster. “He has a strong endorsement of the Socialist Party, which is currently the most organized party of the coalition. His experience in the OAS is probably also a plus since Chileans love the international exposure of their political leaders.”

But Eugenio Guzmán, dean of the government department at Development University in Santiago, said Insulza faces a tough road.

Guzmán said that Ricardo Lagos, who was president 2000-2006, would like his old job again but will run only if anointed by the Concertación. If Lagos doesn’t run, Guzmán added, Insulza would likely be the Socialist Party’s candidate but then he would face competition from its coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, to be the Concertación candidate.

If Insulza achieves that goal, then he would face-off in the December 2009 election against Sebastián Piñera, the center-right candidate who lost to Bachelet in 2006 but currently leads the polls for 2009.