The Organization of American States (OAS) is a multilateral regional body focused on human rights, electoral oversight, social and economic development, and security in the Western Hemisphere. While the organization is recognized by many foreign policy experts as an important forum for regional diplomacy, critics say ideological divisions among its members have hampered its efforts to promote democratic principles.
The OAS has come under renewed focus in recent years for criticizing democratic decline in Nicaragua and persistently condemning Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Since the July 2021 killing of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moise, the country’s tumultuous election process has also posed a challenge for the bloc. While President Donald Trump showed his ambivalence toward the OAS by becoming the first U.S. president to skip its headline meeting, President Joe Biden has signaled his administration’s desire to renew U.S. leadership in the Western Hemisphere.
When was the OAS created?
The United States and twenty other governments in the Western Hemisphere signed the OAS charter in 1948 to increase regional security and commercial cooperation. Additionally, the United States hoped the new organization would serve as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Member states pledged to strengthen regional peace and security, promote representative democracy, and encourage economic and social cooperation. The OAS emerged a year after member states signed the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, known as the Rio Treaty, which established a defensive military alliance in the region. Since then, its membership has increased to thirty-five states; there are seventy-two permanent observers.
How is the OAS organized?
The OAS is headed by Secretary-General Luis Almagro, Uruguay’s former foreign minister, who assumed office in 2015. It comprises three main bodies [PDF]: the General Assembly, the principal decision-making organ, which meets annually; the Permanent Council, which manages day-to-day affairs; and the General Secretariat, which implements policies made by the other two bodies.
The OAS is headquartered in Washington, DC, and has more than seven hundred employees throughout the Americas. It convenes a Summit of the Americas every two to four years, during which national leaders discuss multilateral initiatives and work to reinforce diplomatic ties. The most recent summit took place in April 2018 in Lima, Peru, where OAS members addressed the theme “democratic governance against corruption” against the backdrop of Venezuela’s volatile political situation and Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s resignation in connection with Brazilian graft investigations. President Trump canceled plans to attend the summit, making it the first to be held without a sitting U.S. president. The ninth summit, which was planned for 2021 but postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles in June 2022.
What does the OAS do?
Its primary functions are promoting democracy, coordinating security and law enforcement operations, providing technical and financial assistance for development projects, and monitoring human rights through the inter-American legal system. Several autonomous institutions carry out OAS functions, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Juridical Committee.
In 2019, the OAS sent election observation missions to Bolivia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, among other countries. Other recent initiatives include establishing a working group [PDF] to address mass migration from Venezuela; supporting the creation of an anticorruption commission in El Salvador; and collaborating with member governments, regional institutions, and private companies to improve cybersecurity. The OAS currently has observation missions in nine countries, including the Bahamas, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Saint Lucia. It remains unclear if the bloc will send a delegation to Haiti ahead of the country’s 2022 presidential election, which was postponed after the July 2021 assassination of President Moise.
What is its budget?
The OAS has a regular fund that supports the General Secretariat, and a specific fund geared toward particular programs and initiatives. The General Assembly finances the regular fund by setting country quotas, which are based on members’ capacities to pay. The OAS’s 2022 budget [PDF] allocates $81 million to the regular fund, of which the United States is required to provide [PDF] a little more than half. Between January and November 2021, the United States voluntarily gave [PDF] more than $21 million to the specific fund, accounting for roughly two-thirds of contributions [PDF] in that period.
What are its strengths?
The OAS’s role as a forum for regular high-level discussions on issues facing the hemisphere is one of its major strengths, says CFR’s Shannon K. O’Neil. Several other analysts have praised the IACHR as a crucial, objective platform for human rights litigation. For instance, the commission played an important role in uncovering rights abuses committed during several of the region’s military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s. The OAS “took forceful stands to defend democracy in Haiti, Peru, Guatemala, and Paraguay” in the 1990s, writes Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter.
What are its weaknesses?
Many policymakers from member states have criticized the OAS for institutional shortcomings. Experts say the region’s polarized politics have made it difficult for the OAS to make quick, decisive calls to action.
Moreover, many members are reluctant to empower independent monitoring agencies. In 2016, the IACHR announced layoffs and suspended hearings due to budget cuts, which Shifter says were largely due to members’ failing to meet their financial responsibilities. “For a number of governments, bolstering a genuinely autonomous body that would enhance scrutiny of their human rights records is hardly a high priority,” he writes.
Election monitoring is also constrained: OAS observers can deploy only to countries that have invited them. For example, in 2016, the United States invited OAS observers for the first time to oversee the country’s polarized presidential election. Nevertheless, it has become a norm in many member countries to accept OAS monitors, which O’Neil says has been helpful in ensuring the legitimacy of elections. After observers expressed concern about vote counting during Bolivia’s 2019 presidential election, an OAS audit [PDF] found “clear manipulations” favoring President Evo Morales. The body recommended a new election, but Morales resigned amid widespread protests and under military pressure. Some researchers have since questioned the OAS’s allegations, arguing that there was no statistical evidence of election fraud.
Still, some critics say that the bloc has occasionally offered legitimacy to flawed elections, including in Honduras in 2009 and Haiti in 2011, while some members of the U.S. Congress argue that the OAS has failed to stop democratic erosion in countries such as Venezuela.
How committed is the OAS to democracy?
The OAS has played an important role in promoting democracy since most of the hemisphere returned to civilian rule toward the end of the Cold War. In 1992, the OAS amended its charter to allow the suspension of states whose democratic governments are overthrown by force, and in 2001, 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.” In 2009, members suspended Honduras following a military coup; the country was readmitted two years later after officials there held elections.
Since then, political pressure on Venezuela from the bloc has heightened significantly amid a humanitarian crisis that has caused an estimated six million Venezuelans to flee the country. Peru barred Maduro from the 2018 Summit of the Americas, though Venezuela dominated the meeting’s plenary discussion. Sixteen OAS member states rebuked Caracas in a joint statement, but others, particularly Cuba, indicated support [PDF] for Maduro’s government.
Maduro ignored vociferous calls from Almagro and the OAS Permanent Council to postpone Venezuela’s 2018 presidential election until the rule of law was reinstated and elections sanctioned by international observers. In response, the regional bloc tried to initiate suspension proceedings against Venezuela, but the measure lacked sufficient support. However, the group dealt a blow to Maduro in April 2019 by recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido’s envoy as Venezuela’s representative to the OAS. In May 2021, the OAS publicly supported Guaido’s efforts to unite the opposition around a plan to reestablish democratic order, which would include freeing political prisoners, allowing in international humanitarian aid, and distributing COVID-19 vaccines.
Tensions with Nicaragua, whose deteriorating democracy and worsening human rights situation previously drew criticism from the OAS, came to a head after the bloc declared the country’s November 2021 election to be illegitimate. In response, President Daniel Ortega announced Nicaragua’s withdrawal from the OAS, set to take effect in 2023. Meanwhile, the OAS Permanent Council has called on the Ortega administration to release all political prisoners and open a dialogue with the bloc.
What is the organization's history with Cuba?
The only country in the Western Hemisphere that is not a member of the OAS is Cuba, which has long been a wedge between member states. At the urging of the United States, the OAS suspended Cuba in 1962 on the grounds that its self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist government was “incompatible with the principles and objectives of the inter-American system.”
In 2009, the OAS voted unanimously to lift the suspension on the condition that Cuba submit to a “process of dialogue” on OAS principles. In 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Cuban President Raul Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas—it was the first time a Cuban leader attended the summit—as part of a rapprochement many observers said could warm ties between Washington and much of Latin America.
However, Trump’s partial reversal of the détente introduced by Obama and Castro’s stated lack of interest in rejoining the OAS threw doubt on any such reconciliation. The OAS has remained critical of Cuba, denouncing the installation of Castro’s successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, and condemning the government’s human rights record. In October 2019, Diaz-Canel rebuked the “troop of mediocre and duplicitous politicians pulled together in the OAS.” Months later, the IACHR released a report [PDF] detailing the poor human rights situation in Cuba, and in July 2021, the bloc condemned the Diaz-Canel administration’s use of force during nationwide protests.
What was the Trump administration's relationship with the OAS?
In an April 2017 statement, Trump called the OAS an “enduring organization for the promotion of democracy, security, human rights, and economic development.” His administration led OAS efforts to suspend Maduro’s Venezuelan delegation and recognize Guaido’s envoy. However, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS received criticism in June 2019 from groups, including Haiti’s opposition, for attempting to intervene in the country’s volatile political situation. Some observers also allege that U.S. policymakers pressured the OAS to interfere in the Bolivian election and topple Morales, who has called the United States a “great conspirator” in his fall from power.
OAS officials also feared that deep budget cuts at the U.S. State Department proposed by Trump could affect funding for the bloc. In 2018, his administration requested $8.75 million less than [PDF] the United States’ required contribution to the OAS budget for that year, though it ultimately did meet its quota. And in March 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration would cut funding to the OAS due to the organization’s support for legalizing abortion.
Many Latin American leaders expressed concerns over Trump’s stances on immigration, trade, and Cuba. Trump’s policies toward Latin America risked alienating an increasingly pro-trade, U.S.-friendly region, wrote Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College.
How has Biden engaged with the bloc?
Biden entered office on promises to increase the U.S. focus on Latin America and reverse several policies enacted during the Trump administration, including by giving more aid to Venezuela’s opposition. He has expressed support for several of the OAS’s efforts to restore political stability in Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, and extended temporary protected status to migrants from Haiti and Venezuela. In July 2021, he nominated Francisco Mora, a professor at Florida International University, to be the next U.S. ambassador to the OAS, though Mora has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
However, some critics say that Biden’s administration has so far failed to prioritize regional goals, such as advancing U.S.-Cuba ties and addressing Central America’s migration crisis, amid many other global crises. And while the United States is set to host the ninth Summit of the Americas in July 2022—an event that experts say is an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to the region—few preparations have been made so far.
Are there regional alternatives to the OAS?
A handful of other regional groupings have emerged over the last two decades with different goals. Some seek to counter Washington’s perceived influence over the OAS, while others aim to streamline decision-making.
CELAC: The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States is an organization that excludes the United States and Canada and was widely seen as a potential alternative to the OAS when it was founded in 2010. Its achievements have included securing a 2015 pledge from Chinese President Xi Jinping to invest $500 billion in the region. In December 2021, the China-CELAC Forum released a two-year Joint Action Plan that aims to deepen multilateral cooperation between Beijing and the bloc, as well as create eight new forums that focus on topics including space and digital technology. However, Brazil withdrew from CELAC in 2020, arguing that the group is controlled by authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Argentina is currently occupying the bloc’s rotating presidency and has proposed focusing group efforts on several initiatives, including post-pandemic economic recovery, food security, and regional health cooperation.
UNASUR: The Union of South American Nations was founded in 2008 and regarded by many observers as a means for Brazil to assert its power in the region. The organization mediated a diplomatic crisis between Ecuador and Colombia in 2008, and participated in Vatican-led talks between Venezuela’s government and opposition leaders in 2016. However, it fell apart after more than half its member states suspended their involvement in 2018; only Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela remain.
Prosur: The Forum for the Progress of South America was formed in March 2019 by UNASUR’s defecting countries—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru—plus Guyana. Venezuela was the only South American state not invited to join. Conveners envision it as a UNASUR substitute focused on socioeconomic cooperation, though analysts have questioned the bloc’s usefulness and staying power. Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez has held the bloc’s annual rotating presidency since January 2022.
ALBA: The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America was founded in 2004 by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro. It comprises ten governments from the region (Ecuador withdrew in 2018) and seeks economic and political integration based on leftist ideals. Experts say its influence has diminished amid Venezuela’s economic and political disintegration.
This 2018 Congressional Research Service report gives background on the OAS [PDF] and outlines U.S. priorities within the organization.
In this November 2021 interview, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Ryan C. Berg and OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro talk about the future of the bloc.
Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter examines Trump’s policies toward Latin America ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
CFR’s Shannon K. O’Neil assesses Venezuela’s efforts to withdraw from the OAS.
In an interview with Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly, Secretary-General Almagro discusses the regional response to the crisis in Venezuela.
Antonio Barreras Lozano contributed to this report.