The most critical issue on the Inter-American agenda today is the Honduran crisis. At the forefront of the search for solutions has been the Organisation of American States (OAS). It reacted swiftly, with a unanimous resolution that suspended Honduras.
Its secretary general, Jose Miguel Insulza, took the lead in brokering these efforts, and personally visited Tegucigalpa for talks. In the current negotiations on the crisis led by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Arias is being assisted by OAS staff, including John Biehl, the OAS representative in Montevideo.
Over the last two decades, the Inter-American system in general and the OAS in particular have made enormous progress. It thus leaves behind the somewhat sorry past record of the organisation, when it condoned such nefarious acts as the United States invasion of the Dominican Republic.
Since 1990, and the return of democracy to the region, this has changed. At the General Assembly held in Santiago in 1991, the OAS reaffirmed its commitment to democracy in the Americas. This was formally enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, ratified by all member states in Lima on September 11, 2001.
With the active participation of Canada, that joined the OAS in 1990, democracy promotion and monitoring has become its hallmark. Its Democracy Promotion Unit has been on the frontlines of strengthening democratic institutions and practices throughout the Americas. International electoral observers have become common throughout the region.
Few regions in the world have such an elaborate and widely applied election-monitoring system as Latin America. The OAS did itself proud in the 2006 election in Haiti won by President Rene Preval, an occasion in which the OAS distributed the voter identifications and played otherwise a key role.
This commitment has been reinforced by the "democratic clause" extant in many regional integration mechanisms like MERCOSUR and those of regional summit schemes like the Rio Group and others. This extensive apparatus is now being put to the test.
Latin America today is very different from what it was 30 or 40 years ago. Its governments work together, through a variety of political cooperation mechanisms, much more than they did in the past. They are also on a much more solid economic footing, as shown in its sturdy reaction to the global recession. Today's OAS reflects those new realities, and acts accordingly.
One of the most fascinating things about the reaction of Latin American commentators to the Honduras crisis (as opposed to that of governments, fully aware of the need to draw. a line in the sand), has been that it has been more about Venezuela than about Honduras. Noted Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa thus writes that "Honduras was about to fall, alter Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, into the orbit of Hugo Chavez, when military intervention took place. Manuel Zelaya was the last conquest of the Venezuelan caudillo."
This paranoid view of politics finds its mirror image in the opposing camp, which cannot find fault with anything done by President Zelaya in the weeks and months leading to his downfall.
The OAS thus finds itself under heavy fire. The fact that in early June (coincidentally meeting in Honduras, in San Pedro Sula), the OAS General Assembly unanimously decided to lift the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba's membership, is wielded as an example of a 'double standard' that the OAS would be applying today. According to this reasoning, it would do so because, on the one hand, it lifts the suspension of Cuba, and on the other, it suspends Honduran membership due to the coup.
This is mixing apples and oranges, but has given rise to savage attacks on the OAS (described by Vargas Llosa as "persistently useless", and an organisation that "also turns useless its secretary generals, even those that, like Jose Miguel Insulza, seemed somewhat sharper than the rest"). Vargas Llosa thus calls for the United Nations, the European Union, the Carter Center, Amnesty International and other such bodies to take the lead in managing any forthcoming elections in Honduras and thus guaranteeing a proper institutional environment and the rule of law, explicitly excluding the OAS.
This is madness. Within the Americas, and after enormous efforts, the nations of the continent have set up the proper structures to deal with a variety of challenges and threats to democracy. The OAS, whatever its past faults, brings together all countries of the Hemisphere (and has now opened its doors to Cuba once again; whether Cuba takes advantage of this remains to be seen). It is responding to the current Honduran crisis as best it can.
Another line of attack on the OAS's Insulza is that he would be catering to his constituents (i.e., the heads of government of the Americas) to ensure his re-election; his five-year term ends in 2010, and he will be standing for a second one. Jaime Daremblum of the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, thus accuses the OAS secretary general of being under "the obvious influence of automatic majorities".
Now, isn't that what the secretary general of a regional international organisation is supposed to do - that is, pay attention to what his 'bosses', that is, the heads of the governments who elected him in the first place, want to see happen?
This is reductio ad absurdum. Reducing the Honduran issue to whether one is for or against President Chavez is a grotesque, hyper-ideological way of approaching the matter. There was a coup in Honduras. This is wrong. Whether President Zelaya sympathises with President Chavez is not pertinent. He was the rightfully elected head of state and should be reinstated.
In the past, both the United States and the OAS tended to ignore (if not actively promote) military coups. The Obama administration and the current incarnation of the OAS are taking a diffe-rent stance. Should they be criticised today for standing up for democracy in Honduras because in the past they did not? The manifest lack of logic in such a position should be evident to all.
Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario.