The Organization of American States

Author: Brianna Lee
April 13, 2012

David Mercado/Courtesy Reuters

The Organization of American States serves as a body for regional integration and political, economic, and social cooperation among its thirty-five member states. The OAS has undertaken multiple initiatives to monitor human rights, provide electoral oversight, promote development, and enhance security in the Americas. However, while the organization has been recognized for its value in providing information and serving as a forum for high-level discussion, it has also come under fire for the weakness of its political power, ineffectiveness in decision-making, and inconsistency in applying its democratic principles to states. Ideological polarization and mistrust of the OAS have prompted doubts over its relevance in the region, spurring the creation of alternative platforms for regional integration.

History and Functions

The OAS, known for most of the first half of the twentieth century as the Pan American Union, was created as a platform for commercial cooperation and arbitration between states in the region. The Pan American Union's duties and functions expanded over the course of the early twentieth century, and with the start of the Cold War, collective security against the threat of communism became a priority in the hemisphere. In 1948, member states convened at the group's ninth conference to sign a new charter that officially created the Organization of American States. 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 of today—headed by Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, reelected to a second five-year term in 2010—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 and based on their capacity to pay—the United States contributes approximately $48 million per year. Contribution to the special fund is voluntary. The OAS's 2012 budget supplies approximately $85 million for the regular fund and $70 million for the special fund.

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 state leaders and policymakers have also heavily criticized the OAS for its institutional weakness. Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, says the OAS as a political entity "has declined precipitously in recent years."

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

One of the OAS's major administrative constraints is its consensus model, which requires a unanimous vote to make many of its decisions. As political ideologies have diversified within the region, this has made it difficult for the OAS to make quick, decisive calls to action. The polarization between American states has also led to one of the OAS's other major shortcomings: its many mandates unrelated to the core mission. In 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the OAS to streamline its processes (VOA) from what she called a "proliferation of mandates," noting that the expansion of mandates without proportional expansion of funding made for an "unsustainable" fiscal future.

Election monitoring, one of the OAS's major functions in light of its commitment to democracy, is also restricted by its inability to send election observers without the invitation of state 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.

Within the hemisphere, conflicting views on the OAS's loyalties abound. In the summer 2011 issue of Americas Quarterly, Anthony DePalma sums up the range of mistrust: "Insulza and the OAS itself are widely seen as being bullied by Venezuela (he denies it), as catering to [late Venezuelan president] Hugo Chávez's friends in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua (evidence suggests otherwise) and, strangely, still beholden to the U.S., even though Washington seems to have lost interest."

Chávez has called the OAS a puppet of the United States; at the same time, in July 2011, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed a Republican-sponsored bill to defund the OAS (Foreign Policy), on the charge that the organization supported anti-democracy regimes in Latin America.

Various efforts have been made to create organizations to act as alternatives to the OAS. In 2010, Latin American leaders formed the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an organization that excludes the United States. Chávez and Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa have expressed the desire for CELAC to eventually supplant the OAS, although Sabatini argues that CELAC is "nothing more than a piece of paper and a dream."

Many consider another regional organization, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), to be a useful counterweight to the OAS. UNASUR is regarded by many observers as a means for Brazil to assert its power in the region. O'Neil argues the organization has been able to fulfill some duties that the OAS has been less effective in doing, such as successfully mediating between Ecuador and Colombia during their diplomatic crisis in 2008.

Despite the OAS's shortcomings and questions over its continued relevance in the region, there is a strong call to reform the organization rather than eliminate it altogether.

Commitment to Democracy

Throughout the 1980s, the OAS's mission suffered as military dictatorships overtook several Latin American countries. However, by the early 1990s, as these military governments began to fall and the Cold War came to an end, a new spirit of cooperation and a renewed focus on democracy emerged within the region. In 1992, the OAS amended the 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 since the Democratic Charter was signed, the organization's consensus around 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 against 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." Sabatini says that because the OAS only sends election monitors to nations at the request of governments, he says, "its ability to assert itself in difficult times is severely limited."

Two examples illustrate this inconsistency: the 2000 Peruvian elections, which Sabatini describes as the OAS's "high water mark," and Venezuela's passage of expanded presidential powers for Hugo Chávez in 2010. In 2000, the OAS sent monitors to observe conditions preceding Peru's presidential election, in which incumbent President Alberto Fujimori was seeking a third term in office. Fujimori won the election in a dubious victory after 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 contrast, Venezuela's congress passed a law in 2010 that greatly expanded Chávez's presidential powers, allowing him to pass laws by decree for eighteen months. Although Insulza publicly denounced the law (BBC Mundo) as contrary to the Democratic Charter, the OAS took no formal action against it.

2009 Honduran Leadership Crisis

In 2009, Honduras underwent a leadership crisis that tested the OAS's ability to effectively manage critical situations in the region. On June 28, 2009, members of the Honduran military forced President Manuel Zelaya into exile by order of the nation's Supreme Court. The action was brought on by a Zelaya-backed referendum—observed by OAS election monitors—to change the constitution, an act seen by Zelaya opponents as an effort to eliminate presidential term limits.

The OAS condemned the Honduran military's actions—later officially termed a coup d'état (BBC) by the Honduras Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and issued an ultimatum to reinstate Zelaya, which was rejected. On July 3, 2009, Honduras announced its withdrawal from the organization, and one day later, the OAS voted to suspend Honduras's membership—the first time it had formally suspended any country since Cuba in 1962.

Many observers have criticized the OAS's role in the Honduras crisis, beginning with its decision to send election monitors to the constitutional referendum at Zelaya's request, even though the Congress had deemed the referendum unconstitutional. The OAS's presence in a highly politicized environment, coupled with its failure in preventing the crisis and managing it after the fact, demonstrated the limits of the OAS's power in crisis situations.

As political ideologies have diversified within the region, [its] requirement of unanimity has made it difficult for the OAS to make quick, decisive calls to action.

DePalma wrote in Americas Quarterly that "most observers believe the approach Insulza took—to offer Honduras a 72-hour ultimatum to restore President Jose Manuel Zelaya or be suspended from the OAS—backfired, and probably made a difficult situation worse."

In May 2011, OAS passed the Cartagena Accord, which outlined conditions for Honduras' return to the organization, including allowing Zelaya to return to the country (Reuters), removing his criminal charges, and guaranteeing him the freedom to participate in political activities. Zelaya returned to the country on May 28, 2011, and the country was readmitted into the OAS.

Relations With Cuba

The issue of Cuba's membership in the OAS has been a source of much contention between member states, further fueling questions about the OAS's consistency in defending democracy in the region. After the Cuban Revolution saw Fidel Castro's regime rise to power in 1959, the United States, mired in Cold War politics, began to push for Cuba's removal from the organization. Some OAS members expressed disagreement with the move, saying it violated OAS principles of non-intervention in another country's 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 from the vote. Cuba was effectively barred from representation, attendance, and participation in all OAS events and activities.

On June 3, 2009, during the General Assembly meeting of the OAS in San Pedro Sula, Honduras—just weeks before the coup—the OAS voted unanimously to lift Cuba's suspension, with the condition that Cuba's be subject to a "process of dialogue" over OAS principles before renewing its participation. Cuba has declined to rejoin the group, however. Shortly after its suspension was lifted, Fidel Castro called the OAS an "accomplice to all the crimes committed against Cuba" (MercoPress).

U.S.-OAS Relations

The question of how the United States should continue to interact with the OAS has emerged as the Obama administration calibrates its engagement with Latin American nations (Reuters). OAS summits serve as a crucial way for the U.S. government to demonstrate its willingness to work with Latin America in the face of challenges such as Cuba and China's growing influence in the region, analysts say.

One major front for U.S. cooperation with its OAS partners is on drug policy. The 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena is seen by many as an opportunity for the United States (CBS) to signal it is willing to work with Latin America on building a more robust drug policy, and to help construct a cooperative, wide-ranging strategy for combating the drug trade.

Additional Resources

In the 2007 book Promoting Democracy in the Americas, edited by Thomas Legler, Sharon F. Lean, and Dexter S. Boniface, authors explore the role of the OAS and regional powers in fostering democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In this 2011 Americas Quarterly article, Anthony DePalma delves into the history of the OAS and examines questions over its continued relevance to the region.

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

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