The Organization of American States

A Venezuelan opposition supporter carries a sign that reads, "OAS: come and see," in front of a mural depicting late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas in October 2009. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

The Organization of American States is an important forum for regional diplomacy, but it has been hesitant to censure member states for violating democratic principles.

Last updated May 17, 2017

A Venezuelan opposition supporter carries a sign that reads, "OAS: come and see," in front of a mural depicting late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas in October 2009. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)
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The Organization of American States (OAS) is a multilateral regional organization 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 came under renewed focus in 2017 as the group sharpened its criticism of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his attempts to consolidate power and suppress political opposition.

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 came into being 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.

How is the OAS organized?

The OAS is headed by Secretary-General Luis Almagro, Uruguay’s former foreign minister, who assumed office in 2015. The organization 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 seven hundred employees throughout the region. It convenes a Summit of the Americas every three years, during which national leaders discuss multilateral initiatives and work to reinforce diplomatic ties.

What does the OAS do?

The organization serves several functions within the region: overseeing elections, coordinating security and law enforcement operations, providing technical and financial assistance for disaster management and development projects, and monitoring human rights through the inter-American legal system.

In 2016, the OAS sent election observation missions to Colombia, Haiti, and the United States, among other countries. Other recent initiatives include assisting the governments of Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay, and Trinidad and Tobago to adopt national cybersecurity plans; the Universal Civil Identity Program in the Americas (PUICA), a program to encourage members to issue birth certificates and other forms of identification; and a 2016 forum to organize against child marriage in the region.

Several autonomous institutions carry out OAS functions, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Juridical Committee. In 2017, the IACHR issued statements on state repression of protests in Venezuela, rising violence in rural Brazil, and attacks on union members in Honduras.

What is its budget?

The OAS has a regular fund that supports the General Secretariat, and a special fund geared toward specific 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 2017 budget  [PDF] allocates approximately $73 million to the regular fund, to which the United States supplied [PDF] $51 million, nearly 60 percent of the regular budget. (In 2016, the United States contributed [PDF] more than $20 million to the specific fund, accounting for more than a third of donations for that year.)

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 Senior Fellow Shannon K. O'Neil. Several other analysts have praised the IAHRC 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.

"When an incumbent president is accused of violating democratic principles, the OAS tends to be very hesitant to act," says Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College. Corrales says OAS members tend to shy away from imposing economic sanctions because many governments fear that down the road they could become targets for such measures.

When an incumbent president is accused of violating democratic principles, the OAS tends to be very hesitant to act.
Javier Corrales, Professor, Amherst College

Moreover, many members are reluctant to empower independent monitoring agencies. In 2016, the IAHRC 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. “They can't condemn a country unless that country wants to be condemned,” 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 in ensuring the legitimacy of elections.

How committed is 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.

But many experts say the organization has been slow to act as Venezuela's government has grown increasingly autocratic over the last two decades. Experts say many Latin American governments were hesitant to criticize Caracas because they were ideologically aligned with its socialist government or relied on low-interest oil imports from Venezuela.

Secretary-General Almagro has taken a stronger stance against the government of Nicolas Maduro in recent years. In 2016, he issued a report [PDF] outlining grounds for Venezuela's censure, and in March 2017 he called on Maduro's government to hold elections or face suspension.

In 2017, Venezuela announced it would pull out of the OAS, making it the first country to leave the group voluntarily.

In April, Venezuela announced it would pull out of the OAS, making it the first country to leave the group voluntarily. The seemingly preemptive move, which may take two years, will likely further isolate Venezuela from its neighbors.

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.” Fourteen states, including the United States, voted in favor of the motion; Cuba was the only vote against. Six members—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico—abstained.

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 Cuban President Raul Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas (it was the first time a Cuban leader had attended the summit), part of a rapprochement many observers said could warm ties between Washington and much of Latin America. However, Cuban officials have said they are not interested in rejoining the OAS.

How has the Trump administration responded to the OAS?

In an April 2017 statement, U.S. President Donald J. Trump called the OAS an "enduring organization for the promotion of democracy, security, human rights, and economic development." However, OAS officials fear that deep budget cuts to the U.S. State Department proposed by Trump could affect funding to the organization.  

Meanwhile, many Latin American leaders have expressed concerns over his stances on immigration, trade, and Cuba. In a 2017 op-ed, Corrales wrote that Trump's policies toward Latin America risk alienating an increasingly pro-trade, U.S.-friendly region. U.S. protectionism, he said, may paradoxically encourage Latin American countries to be more open to trade with one another.

Are there regional alternatives to the OAS?

A handful of other regional groupings have emerged over the last two decades with different goals. Some sought to counter Washington's perceived influence over the OAS, others aimed to streamline decision-making, and some formed to pursue economic agendas.

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. One of its signature achievements came when members traveled to Beijing in 2015 and secured a pledge from Chinese President Xi Jinping to invest $500 billion in the region over the next decade.

UNASUR. The Union of South American Nations was founded in 2008 and is 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.

ALBA. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America was founded in 2004 by Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez and then Cuban President Fidel Castro. It comprises eleven governments from the region and seeks economic and political integration based on leftist ideals. But experts say its influence has diminished amid Venezuela's economic and political disintegration.

Pacific Alliance. The Pacific Alliance, an economic bloc comprising Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, was created in 2011. Twelve other countries in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, hold observer status. It primarily serves to integrate member economies and expand their trade with the Asia-Pacific region.

Mercosur. Mercosur was formed in 1991 and comprises Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela (although Venezuela was suspended in late 2016). Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Suriname are associate members. Like the Pacific Alliance, Mercosur aims to integrate member economies.

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Resources Up

This 2016 Congressional Research Service report [PDF] gives background on the OAS and outlines U.S. priorities within the organization.

This 2017 New York Times op-ed examines U.S.–Latin America ties under President Trump.

CFR's Shannon K. O'Neil discusses Venezuela's withdrawal from the OAS in this op-ed.

The Washington Post profiles OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro in this 2016 editorial.

This Foreign Policy article looks at the OAS's commitment to democracy over the years.

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