Something revolutionary happened yesterday, although it was done in such a quiet fashion that almost no one paid any attention at all.
What I’m referring to was the unanimous election of Jose Miguel Insulza to the post of Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Insulza was elected by a vote of 32-0, with two abstentions (Bolivia and Peru) and one “blank vote” which was probably just a technical error by the state that filed the ballot. The results are secret so we’ll never know who issued the blank vote.
Today’s OAS (OEA in the languages of its non-English members) evolved from the “Pan American Union” and came into its own existance in 1948. The OAS is currently the most influential political body of the western hemisphere and currently every country is a member with the exception of Cuba. Haiti is a member but its chair is “empty” due to the 2004 coup forced on the country.
Despite the fact that every country is an “equal” member, the OAS has long been under the direct control of the United States. For example, Cuba was expelled in 1962 at Washington’s existance but no other countries ever were despite a spate of dicators in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Guatemala.
Every single Secretary General has had the explicit backing of the United States throughout the history of the organization – that is, until now. While the Bush administration has focused on Iraq and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, its influence in the Western Hemisphere has slipped to an all time low.
To understand how significant this is, we need to go all the way back to what is referred to as the (Teddy) Roosevelt Corrollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
In 1823, President Monroe formulated a new domestic policy eventually referred to as the Monroe Doctrine, which roughly stated:
- The Americas (Western Hemisphere) should be free from further European colonization
- European countries should no longer interfere in sovereign countries’ affairs in Latin America
- Any new colonies or interference with independent countries would be seen as a “hostile act” towards the United States
- In trade, the U.S. would not interfere with any European wars
At the time Monroe stated this new policy, the United States was a lot smaller but had recently defeated the British Empire. Simon Bolivar was beginning his several wars of independence for many South American countries and Monroe (including his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams) wanted to keep Spain from stepping in to quash Bolivar’s rebellions.
In 1902, Great Britain, Italy and Germany used naval forces to try to get the Venezuelan government to pay off some of its debts. Roosevelt sent in the U.S. Navy and chased off the European powers.
In 1904, President Teddy Roosevelt expanded the interpretation of the “Monroe Doctrine” in what was referred to as the “Roosevelt Corollary”, which came about because the Dominican Republic stopped making payments on millions of dollars worth of debts to European nations. Roosevelt, fearing the European creditors might step in to collect the debt with force, said that only the United States could “intervene” in Latin America.
“Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation,” he announced in his annual message to Congress in December 1904, “and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”
America’s hegemony over Latin America became complete with the defeat of the Spanish in the Spanish-American War and other conflicts which netted the U.S. both Puerto Rico and Cuba. The U.S. also created the nation of “Panama” out of what was formerly Colombia, simply to gain control over the isthmus so it could build the economically vital Panama Canal (which it maintained full control over until 1990, when it overthrew the gov’t and installed a more friendly one).
The U.S. also occupied Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, Panama at various times throughout the 50 years following the Roosevelt Corollary. And its military “right to intervene” continued right up until 1984 with the invasion of Grenada, although technically the Monroe Doctrine was “reversed” in 1930 under the presidency of Calvin Coolidge.
Yet the Bush administration’s actions have increasingly alienated the countries which once toed the United States’ line. The first sign of dissent was when the OAS refused to condemn the 2004 referendum that affirmed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in that post. There is widespread evidence that Washington helped engineer a coup against Chavez in 2002 and when that failed, his opponents sought to remove him by popular referendum. But Chavez survived, winning 60% percent of the vote.
During the initial part of the Iraq War, several Latin American countries’ sent troops or provided support, often after harsh arm-twisting by Washington. These included El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and “moral support” from Colombia. Now only El Salvador has any troops in Iraq, the other countries withdrawing their presence in 2004, following Spain’s lead.
There have also been several “leftist” presidents elected in Latin America in recent years, the most famous being Hugo Chavez, but also including Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay and Ricardo Lagos in Chile. The populations of these 5 countries is more than half of all the Spanish speaking people in the Western Hemisphere.
The latest nail in the coffin of U.S. influence has been Insulza’s victory yesterday, which is notable because his two main contenders dropped out. Who were they?
Washington’s favorite was originally Francisco Flores, a former president of El Salvador. The nation of El Salvador is currently governed by the ARENA party, which is an outgrowth of the guerillas known as the FMLN who fought a bitter civil war during the 1980’s and were financed by the United States. As a result, the government of El Salvador (including Flores) is strongly pro-United States, which explains why they still have several hundred troops in Iraq.
Although Flores was relatively popular at home, his close association with Washington put his candidacy for Secretary General of the OAS in jeopardy, which says something significant unto itself. As a result, he withdrew his nomination on April 8.
Washington then favored Luis Ernesto Derbez, currently Mexico’s Economy Minister. The voting for SecGen of the OAS on April 11, 2005 ended in a 17-17 tie with the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean nations voting for Derbez and most of the South American countries voting for Insulza.
On April 29, 2005 Mexico withdrew Derbez from the running, largely as a result of the Mexican parliament expressing a lack of confidence in his suitability for the role.
That left Insulza alone in the ring, and with the exception of a long-running feud he’s had with Bolivia, he was elected unanimously.
So who is Insulza? Well he’s currently Chile’s Interior Minister, but it is his history that is significant.
In 1973, he was given the post of “Political Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” and “Director of the Diplomatic Academy” of his nation under newly elected President Salvador Allende. I should add that Salvador Allende was also democratically elected, and one of the greatest shames of my country’s history was its participation in the violent overthrow of this man in 1973.
The U.S.-sponsored coup brought Augusto Pinochet to power, causing suffering and death for thousands of Chileans as well as the American Charles Horman, who was tortured to death.
Insulza had to flee the country, where he he lived in exile in Rome, Italy until 1980. He later went to Mexico and only returned to his homeland in 1990, when he was appointed the Ambassador for “International Cooperation”. He has since held a number of important ministerial positions in Chile, culminating in his current post as the Interior Minister under socialist President Ricardo Lagos.
Venezuela and Brazil both lobbied hard for Insulza’s candidacy and it is truly a sign of the times that their man has won. The U.S. has tried to put a brave face on the whole ordeal, saying Insulza is a good choice for the job but clearly it must sting to have their first two choices lose.
The OAS has been a puppet organization of the United States for so long that it’s hard to know what concrete changes will occur with Insulza at the helm. It’s significance however is in the symbolism of the United States’ favorites not winning the post after 50 consecutive years of being in charge. And it’s a major victory for the leftist bloc in South America, which is pushing for great regional autonomy and the formation of larger trading blocs and political unity.
There is an old saying that when the cat is away, the mice will play. And it seems that with all the focus on the Middle East, the little Spanish and Portuguese speaking mice have been quite busy indeed…
Posted here at Boo’s request