Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

OAS Secretary General Parses Regional Politics

October 19, 2011

With over 30 independent states, the Americas are ethnically, politically, and economically diverse. Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza explored the influence of this heterogeneity on inter-American relations, emphasizing the role of oppositions, at a recent conference at the Institute on Scholars, Practitioners, and Inter-American Affairs, co-hosted by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Watson Institute. “There are different gaps between scholars and practitioners, Latin American and United States academics, and then there’s the political gap… between the left, center-left, and conservatives,” he explained. Together, these contrasting positions have shaped the face of inter-American politics today.

Insulza first addressed the improving cooperation between academics and politicians. The main trend: academics and scholars have had increasing influence over policy development in the Americas. Ranging from the policies of the Sixth Summit of the Americas to the approval of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties of the Panama Canal to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s (CEPAL’s) “history of having inspired most of the policies in the region for over two decades,” academic ideas have been integral to the political realm, said Insulza. The adoption of the Hobbes Dilemma, and essentially, “the whole notion of expanding democracy… was very much a matter of academics before it was taken up by politicians,” he added.

Another key example of this relationship is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The status the commission has today and the autonomy with which it operates are strongly based upon the people who conducted the scholarly work around the issue of human rights, said Insulza. These people have no visible power, since they don’t belong to any governments, but “they have become such a relevant force that it’s difficult to propose some changes to the Inter-American system of human rights without having their consent,” he elaborated.

Adding another layer to this dynamic are regional differences, creating a flow of concepts between the United States and Latin America. For instance, in economic matters, while CEPAL has considerable importance, “Latin American countries are also very much children of the New Deal policies,” said Insulza. 

“When you are in a position in which all points of views are represented in all countries,” ultimately what is discovered  is that, “on both sides of the [political and regional] fences there are groups that share more or less the same values and the same ideas, and are able to put them into practice,” Insulza said. This, while at the same time, dissention can also cut across these divides, whether on Cuba, the OAS charter, or other matters. Lacking easy generalizations and one-size-fits-all conclusions, dissatisfaction can readily erupt in political matters. 

Focusing specifically on the changing nature of the relationship between the United States and Latin America, Insulza delved into the recent chronicle of events. A major instigator of change occurred during this past Sixth Summit of the Americas, held 100 days after Obama took office. “The presence of President Obama was a success. The atmosphere seemed to have changed and everybody was really in a positive mood,” said Insulza. In particular, “there were no anti-American speeches at the conference, which is something very rare,” he added. However, the biggest surprise was Obama’s promise: “I want to make policy with you and not for you,” quoted Insulza. 

In matters of democracy and human rights, there has been great cooperation and progress in the region. However, in general, Insulza said that Obama’s promise “really never happened.” Of the laundry list of issues brought up at the conference needing resolving, from poverty to energy to Cuba, “there is no movement at all” in many of the issues, like immigration policies and the approval of the treaties with Panama and Columbia. “So in terms of stability and democratic elections, we have done well… What happens is that we are not doing as well as we should in matters of governing ability, quality of governance, or the full application of all the principles of the Latin American Democratic Charter,” said Insulza. 

A fundamental problem inhibiting the resolution of these major issues is really institutional. Ultimately, the United States needs to “adapt to the changing realities of the hemispheres,” said Insulza. “We have a large agenda to work on, and the matter is that some things have to change. The US cannot continue to deal with multilateral institutions as if we were mirrors of its own policy,” said Insulza. Thus, the real threat to the hemispheric system is not the growing independence of Latin America, but rather “the willingness of its most important partner, [the US], to continue working symbiotically, in the way most of the countries would like to work,” said Insulza. 

By Watson Institute Student Rapproteur Kaori Ogawa ’12