Columns

Almagro — a clear and present danger to the OAS and region

BRUCE GOLDING

Sunday, January 27, 2019

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Sir Ronald Sanders, whose weekly columns are published by the Sunday Observer, wrote last week about the rogue behaviour of the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Mr Luis Almagro. Sir Ronald and I hold different views as to how the crisis in Venezuela should be approached but he is absolutely right on this one.

The secretary general is the chief executive officer and servant of the OAS and must act on the direction of its decision-making bodies, namely, the General Assembly and the Permanent Council. He has no authority to act unilaterally or independently.

Almagro's loose cannon behaviour

From the get-go, Almagro has behaved like a prime minister presiding over a cabinet that is beholden to him and which he can ignore or overrule. Since he assumed office in 2015, there have been five Permanent Council resolutions relating to the situation in Venezuela, the most recent being that of January 10th this year in which the decision was taken not to recognise the Government of Nicolas Maduro.

None of these resolutions authorised him to facilitate in 2017 the swearing-in “in exile” at the OAS headquarters of Justices of the Venezuelan Supreme Court chosen by the National Assembly. After the Opposition gained control of the Assembly in the 2015 elections, Maduro had used the lame-duck Assembly to pack the court with his supporters whom the new Assembly sought to replace.

Neither did any of these resolutions give Almagro the authority to declare last September that military intervention as an option to remove the Maduro Government would not be ruled out.

In his latest outburst, Almagro has declared recognition of the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the interim president of Venezuela. Guaido's claim to the presidency may well be arguable under Article 187 of the Venezuelan constitution but neither the Permanent Council nor the General Assembly has taken or even discussed such a position. In Trumpian style, Almagro has taken to Twitter to express views on the Venezuelan situation that go far beyond the positions authorised by the formal bodies.

As Sir Ronald points out, Almagro's behaviour has rendered the OAS incapable of being an honest broker in resolving the Venezuelan crisis and its credibility will be questioned in any intervention it may make in the future in any other country.

Almagro's illicit support base

Almagro would not be able to behave this way unless he was confident of the ground on which he stands. That confidence is derived from the position of the United States, Canada, and the Latin American countries that make up the Lima Group whose hostility toward the Maduro regime brooks neither international law nor the OAS charter. Yet, they are not the sources from which his authority flows and whose directives he is obliged to follow.

Other member countries, including Jamaica, cannot continue to allow this aberrant behaviour to go unchecked.

Article 118 of the charter states “the Secretary General and the personnel of the Secretariat shall not seek or receive instructions from any Government or from any authority outside the Organization, and shall refrain from any action that may be incompatible with their position as international officers responsible only to the Organization”.

Article 119 states “Member States pledge themselves to respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary General and the personnel of the General Secretariat, and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their duties”.

Almagro has shown no regard for these provisions and has esconced himself firmly within the clutches of powerful member countries led by the United States. He may just as well move his desk into the State Department and reduce his telephone bill.

The Secretary General of the United Nations could never behave this way. He would be challenged and most likely removed from office in short order. Almagro can be removed by a two-thirds vote of the OAS General Assembly but that is highly unlikely, given the fact that he is clearly doing the bidding of countries that make up more than one-third of the membership.

Almagro's five-year tenure ends in May of next year and he intends to seek a second term. If he succeeds, it would be a disaster for the OAS. His behaviour led to his formal expulsion from the governing Frente Amplio in Uruguay last December and prompted the former president, Jose Mujica, whom he served as foreign minister, to declare to him “I regret the direction that you chose to follow and I know it is irreversible, so now, I tell you goodbye”.

Manipulation of the OAS

Nothing has done more harm to the OAS and stunted its development as a powerful and effective hemispheric organisation than its manipulation by the US to further its own political objectives. Its history is checkered with instances in which it was conscripted to topple governments in the region, suppress democratic expression and support flagrant violation of human rights by favoured regimes.

In the last decade, there were encouraging signs that that order was changing. I quote at some length comments which I made in a paper prepared last year in observance of the 70th anniversary of the OAS:

“The US has acknowledged its own role in the turbulent past and has affirmed its commitment to partnership and cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean countries. The former commander of the US Southern Command, retired Admiral James Stavridis, asserted that the common heritage between the US and Latin America, so effusively proclaimed by President John Kennedy in launching the Alliance for Progress in 1961, 'has at times been overshadowed by the unbalanced, and often resented, history of US military and political intervention in the region in the 19th and 20th centuries. This particular legacy of heavy-handedness and gunboat diplomacy still poses challenges to the building of bridges between north and south. But we've made great strides to develop a legacy of partnership and cooperation over the last few years'.

“Retired General John Kelly, who also commanded the US Southern Command and currently serves as White House Chief of Staff, was equally sanguine, hailing the fact that 'about thirty years ago, we stopped doing the interventions, really and truly'.

“President Barack Obama lent his authority to these assurances in 2015 when he declared in Panama 'The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past'.

“The extent to which these assurances and the expressed desire for partnership are being manifested is open to debate. They are hardly in sync with President Donald Trump's declaration in August 2017 that he might consider a 'military option' to resolve the current internal political crisis in Venezuela.

“Many are still in a quandary as to whether utterances like this are to be taken 'literally but not seriously' or 'seriously but not literally'. Those who fear that old habits die hard cannot but be unsettled by the response of Vice-President Mike Pence who, when asked to clarify his president's statement, responded that 'President Trump is a leader who says what he means and means what he says'.”

Almagro seems to be determined to return the OAS to those “halcyon” days.

The Venezuelan people must decide Venezuela's future

I am firmly of the view that the Maduro Government is illegitimate and lacks moral authority. That illegitimacy should not be countenanced or endorsed. But, ultimately, it is only the people of Venezuela that have the authority to remove the Government.

The Maduro regime should be isolated and appropriate sanctions applied, as was done in the case of South Africa, Rhodesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and several other countries. Sovereign nations are entitled to do so if they feel that a regime has behaved in such an egregious way that such actions are necessary. But only the people of Venezuela can decide who should exercise authority over them.

Last week's mass demonstrations suggest that the people have found new energy and leadership. That leadership must be careful lest, in its desperate quest for support in its struggle, it mistakes an embrace for chains of enslavement that will subordinate the interests of the Venezuelan people.

If the OAS is to have any usefulness in the immediate future, Almagro, too, needs to be isolated — if not sooner, then certainly when his term of office comes to an end next year.


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