Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

President Obama and the OAS

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

President Obama and the OAS

Article excerpt

It is no surprise that the new administration of Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice about how it should approach US policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean in the coming years. There is an enormous sense of opportunity right now, a feeling that the time could be ripe for shaping a more productive relationship between Washington and the region.

Most of the ideas have focused on controversial policy questions of great concern to Latin America. In addition to the usual array of issues-trade, immigration, drugs, and Cuba--there is a great deal of interest in whether or not relationships will change with countries like Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. How will the new administration tackle this agenda? How should it tackle the agenda? Another very important-and much less frequently asked question--is how President Obama will deal with the inter-American system and, specifically, the Organization of American States. Will the new administration continue to give it ample financial assistance (roughly 60 percent of the total budget) and perfunctory political support? Or will it attempt to reenergize an institution that has been limited in its ability to carry out critical functions? The fact is that it is hard to separate the specific policy challenges in Latin America from those facing the hemisphere's institutional architecture.

Given budgetary pressures and other foreign policy priorities, the Obama administration

is unlikely to give more aid money or even attention to Latin America. But what should be reasonably expected of President Obama is a greater emphasis on multilateral diplomacy. Since he announced his candidacy for the presidency two years ago, Obama has been consistent in talking about the need for genuine consultation with partners in this hemisphere and elsewhere. This kind of consultation also seems to be a central trait embodied in his leadership style.

For reasons of pragmatism as well as principle, Obama would be wise to elevate the importance of the OAS. Any efforts by the new US administration to support democratic governance, the rule of law, or human rights would have little credibility or legitimacy unless it was conducted in concert with other regional governments. On these and other issues, the OAS offers a unique forum and much-needed space to air different perspectives and explore cooperation.

In addition, the technical expertise of the organization has given it an impressive track record for addressing transnational problems in a professional manner. Through the work of the independent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for example, the OAS has developed a significant body of hemispheric jurisprudence and has put a spotlight on an array of critical human rights concerns. Set up in 1998, the Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Expression has called attention to violations of press freedom across the region. The efforts of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San Jose, Costa Rica, have been similarly significant. Election monitoring under OAS auspices in select countries has become a regular, expected practice since the early 1990s.

The Obama team can make 1 progress on questions of democracy and human rights--the core of the OAS mission--by giving the OAS greater political weight and mobilizing support from other governments for its valuable work. Obstacles, exist, to be sure. As current OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza has said often, and with good reason, the strain in inter-American affairs: today has made political consensus on an array of fundamental issues exceedingly difficult. The problem goes beyond whatever tensions may exist between the United States and other member governments. Clearly, there is also friction between Latin American governments on issues ranging from energy to the economy to long-simmering border disputes. In a context of political disarray and mutual suspicion, multilateral agreement and effectiveness is particularly elusive. …

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