The Organization of American States

Authors: Brianna Lee, and Danielle Renwick
Updated: April 9, 2015

David Mercado/Courtesy Reuters

The Organization of American States (OAS) serves to help regional integration and political, economic, and social cooperation among the thirty-five countries of the Americas. The OAS has undertaken multiple initiatives to monitor human rights, provide electoral oversight, promote development, and enhance security in the region. While the organization has been recognized for providing information and serving as a forum for high-level discussion, it has also come under fire as ineffectual and inconsistent in applying its democratic principles. Ideological polarization and mistrust of the OAS have prompted doubts over its relevance in the region and spurred the creation of competing regional groups.

History and Functions

The OAS was created in 1948 as a platform for commercial cooperation and arbitration between states in the region. The OAS charter pledged to “strengthen the peace and security of the continent” and “promote and consolidate representative democracy,” as well as to encourage economic, social, and cultural cooperation within the Americas.

The OAS is headed by Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza, who will finish his second five-year term in May 2015 and be succeeded by Luis Almagro, Uruguay’s former foreign minister. The organization serves several functions within the region, including providing electoral oversight, assisting in security operations, providing technical and financial assistance for disaster management and development projects, and monitoring human rights. Several autonomous institutions created by the OAS carry out some of these specialized functions, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Juridical Committee. The OAS convenes a Summit of the Americas roughly every three years for heads of state to discuss multilateral initiatives and reinforce their commitments to regional cooperation.

The OAS has a regular fund, which supports the General Secretariat, and a special fund, which is geared toward specific programs and initiatives. Member countries finance the regular fund through country quotas set by the General Assembly which are based on their capacity to pay. The OAS's 2015–2016 budget (PDF) supplies approximately $85 million to the regular fund and $60 million to the specific fund, where contributions are voluntary. In 2015, the United States allocated $48.5 million to the regular fund and $6.1 million to the specific fund, making its donations a third of the OAS’s overall budget.

Questions of Effectiveness and Relevance

CFR's Shannon K. O'Neil says the OAS's role as a forum for regular, high-level discussions on issues facing the hemisphere is one of its major strengths. Several other analysts have praised the Inter-American Human Rights Commission as a crucial, objective platform for human rights litigation. However, many member-states’ leaders and policymakers have criticized the OAS for institutional weakness. 

Analysts say since the Democratic Charter was signed, the organization's consensus around democracy promotion has atrophied.

The U.S. OAS Revitalization and Reform Act of 2013, which was signed into law that year, expresses support for the OAS as the region’s “primary multilateral diplomatic entity for dispute resolution,” but argues for “management and programmatic reforms.” The law says the OAS accepts “too many member-state mandates creating unclear priorities and loss of institutional focus.”

Experts say one of the OAS's major constraints is its consensus model, which requires a unanimous vote to make many decisions. Political ideologies have diversified within the region, making it difficult for the OAS to make quick, decisive calls to action.

Election monitoring, one of the OAS's major functions, is also restricted by the organization’s inability to send election observers without the invitation of governments. “They can't condemn a country unless that country wants to be condemned,” CFR's O'Neil says. Nevertheless, she adds, it has become a norm in many member countries to accept OAS monitors, which she says has been helpful to ensuring the legitimacy of elections.

Early Summits of the Americas focused on regional trade. The first was held in Miami, FL, in 1994, following the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which sought to integrate markets in the Western Hemisphere, saw fierce debate at the Mar del Plata, Argentina, Summit of the Americas in 2005. The summit garnered international attention for violent protests against then President George W. Bush and the proposed FTAA. Trade agreements and regional economic integration have since mostly moved to other arenas, including the Southern Common Market (known by the acronym Mercosur) and the Pacific Alliance.

The OAS has critics in many corners. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2010 called the organization a puppet of the United States. Congressional Republicans have sponsored legislation to defund the OAS on the charge that it supported undemocratic regimes in Latin America. U.S. funding to the OAS has dropped from a high of $67.5 million 2012 to $54.6 million in 2015.

Regional Alternatives to the OAS

In recent years, other organizations have emerged: 

CELAC: In 2010, Latin American leaders formed the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an organization that excludes the United States and Canada. In January 2015, CELAC members traveled to Beijing, where Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $500 billion in investments in the region over the next decade. At a CELAC summit in Costa Rica later that month, heads of state issued a declaration (PDF) denouncing Cuba’s designation by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and calling on the United States to end the embargo against Cuba.

UNASUR: Another regional organization, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), is regarded by many observers as a means for Brazil to assert its power in the region. The organization is credited with mediating a diplomatic crisis between Ecuador and Colombia in 2008. In March 2015, UNASUR called on Latin American countries to help ease Venezuela’s chronic shortages of basic goods.

ALBA: The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) was founded in by Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez and then–Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2004 amid anti-FTAA sentiments. It comprises eleven governments from Latin America and the Carribbean and seeks economic and political integration based on leftist ideals.

Pacific Alliance: The Pacific Alliance, an economic bloc whose member states are Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, was created in 2011. Twelve other countries in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, have observer status, and Costa Rica and Panama are candidates for full membership. It primarily serves to integrate its members’ economies and expand their trade with the Asia-Pacific region. Its charter requires that its members be democracies that respect human rights.

“There are areas where it’s quite useful to have regional groupings to deal with regional problems,” says O’Neil. “Not every country in the hemisphere has to be involved when there’s instability in particular areas.” However, O’Neil adds, there are also risks that with the proliferation of regional organizations, the fora will undermine, rather than complement, one another.

Commitment to Democracy

The OAS mission suffered throughout the 1980s as military dictatorships overtook several Latin American countries.By the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Cold War came to an end and these military governments fell, a new spirit of cooperation and a renewed focus on democracy emerged within the region. In 1992, the OAS amended its charter to allow for the suspension of states whose democratic governments are overthrown by force. On September 11, 2001, OAS members signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which declared that American states have a “right to democracy” and an “obligation to promote and defend it.”

However, analysts say that since the Democratic Charter was signed, the organization's consensus on democracy promotion has atrophied. In the book Promoting Democracy in the Americas, Dexter Boniface wrote that the OAS has demonstrated an “ambiguous commitment” to the defense of democracy. According to Boniface, while the OAS has condemned and acted against immediate, severe threats to democracy, such as coups and “egregious election failures,” its institutional weakness has prevented it from acting “directly in relation to violations of electoral or constitutional procedure.” Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, says that because the OAS can only send election monitors to nations at the request of their governments, “its ability to assert itself in difficult times is severely limited.”

Two examples illustrate this inconsistency. In 2000, the OAS sent monitors to observe conditions before Peru's presidential election, in which incumbent President Alberto Fujimori was seeking a third term. Fujimori won the election but election monitors reported irregularities, prompting the OAS General Assembly to send a high-level mission to Peru to facilitate dialogue and issue recommendations for democratic reforms. In Venezuela in 2010, the country’s congress passed a law that expanded Chavez's presidential powers, allowing him to pass laws by decree for eighteen months. Although Insulza, the general-secretary, publicly denounced the law as contrary to the Democratic Charter, the OAS took no formal action.

Honduras’s 2009 military coup demonstrated the limits of the organization’s power in crisis situations, some experts argue. Then-President Manuel Zelaya was forced into exile after he proposed a referendum to change the constitution, an act seen by Zelaya’s opponents as an effort to eliminate presidential term limits. A de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti failed to reinstate Zelaya by an OAS-imposed deadline, resulting in Honduras’ suspension from the organization. By doing so, wrote the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter and Dan Joyce, the OAS “forfeited its role as an honest broker in trying to ease tensions between Zelaya and the de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti.”

Relations With the United States and Cuba

The issue of Cuba's membership in the OAS has been a source of contention among member states, further fueling questions about the OAS's consistency in defending democracy in the region. After the Cuban revolution saw Fidel Castro's communist regime rise to power in 1959, the United States,  began to push for Cuba's removal from the organization. Some OAS members said the move violated the OAS principle of nonintervention in members’ internal affairs.

In January 1962, Cuba was suspended from the OAS on the grounds that its self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist government was “incompatible with the principles and objectives of the inter-American system.” Fourteen states, including the United States, voted in favor of the motion; Cuba was the only vote against. Six members—Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and Ecuador—abstained.

In 2009, the OAS voted unanimously to lift the suspension, with the condition that Cuba be subject to a “process of dialogue” on OAS principles before renewing its participation. Cuban officials said they were not interested in rejoining the organization. However, President Raul Castro accepted Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela’s invitation to attend the OAS’s 2015 summit, in Panama City.

The question of how the United States should interact with the OAS has emerged as the Obama administration seeks to reopen dimploatic relations with Cuba. OAS summits serve as a way for the U.S. government to demonstrate its willingness to work with Latin America in the face of regional ideological polarization and China's growing influence in the region, analysts say. However, much of the summits’ value comes from informal interactions on the sidelines.

“The OAS has become less important for countries Venezuela, Brazil—another regional leader—and, frankly, for the United States,” says O’Neil. “We turn less to the OAS as a place to forward U.S.–Latin America relations. We do it much more on a bilateral or subregional level than we did in the past.”

Additional Resources

This Congressional Research Service report (PDF) gives background on the OAS and outlines U.S. priorities within the organization.

This Americas Quarterly article offers a range of expert opinions on the OAS and its future in the Western Hemisphere.

This Brookings policy brief argues that U.S.–Latin America relations have improved in recent decades. 

This 2013 article by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Sophie Mouline discusses the twenty-first century model of regional integration in Latin America.

More on this topic from CFR