By Sir Ronald Sanders
WASHINGTON, United States, Tuesday January 7, 2020 – The contest for the post of Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS) is now well and truly joined.
The election for the post will be held on March 20, and there are three contestants whose nominations were submitted by December 15, 2019 – the date set by the Permanent Council of the Organization. The rules allow for nomination of a candidate up to the day of the election, although this is unlikely. No one would take seriously a candidate who has not presented a vision for the Organization or taken the trouble to solicit the support of its 33 legitimate member states, plus the representative of Venezuela’s Juan Guaido.
The contestants are: the incumbent Luis Almagro whose current term ends in March; Hugo de Zela, the present Ambassador of Peru to the United States of America (US); and, the only female, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, most recently the President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Two Caribbean countries – Antigua and Barbuda and St Vincent and the Grenadines – nominated Espinosa who is an Ecuadorian; Colombia submitted the Uruguayan Luis Almagro; and Peru proposed de Zela. Apart from de Zela, nominations of the candidates depart from the norm.
Usually, candidates are put forward by their own governments. The fact that tradition was not followed for this election demonstrates the state of disorder in the OAS – a condition that has become acute over the last four years. Two things have driven the disruption of the systemic functioning of the Organization. The first is a movement from consensus building on decisions to imposition by powerful governments of their will through a process of coercion or influence peddling. The other is Almagro’s arrogation to himself of the authority to use the OAS as a platform for pronouncements that are reflective only of his narrowly held positions and not of the OAS membership as a collective body.
In ordinary circumstances, Mr Almagro would be re-elected as Secretary-General with little dissension. Let there be no doubt of his intellectual capacity and his knowledge of Latin America. Had he taken the time and trouble to appreciate the challenges faced by Caribbean countries and their priorities, he could have become a champion of the smaller countries that comprise almost half of the OAS’ membership. Indeed, as the Ambassador, who apart from the Ambassador of Paraguay, has served longest with Mr Almagro as Secretary-General, I urged him to be more conscious of Caribbean concerns.
In February 2015, when he was seeking election, Mr Almagro stated categorically that, on the issue of development, if he is elected as Secretary General, he would propose three initiatives in the area of development: first, a contingency fund for natural disasters with particular emphasis on Central America and the Caribbean; second, an Interconnectivity Fund for the Caribbean “which can overcome structural weaknesses, either in terms of logistics and information and communications technology, and increase the employment potential for youth”; and third, an Inter-American initiative on climate change “that can reach a consensus on the position of the Hemisphere ahead of Paris 2015”.
Apart from a paltry fund to provide a token sum after disasters, none of this happened.
By several missteps, Mr Almagro managed to alienate himself from the expectations that many Caribbean leaders – all of whom supported his 2015 election – had of him.
It is not only amongst Caribbean countries that Mr Almagro’s controversial posture raised concerns. This is obvious in the fact that Peru – one of the architects of the Lima Group, an unofficial grouping of countries in the OAS – decided to field Mr de Zela against him.
The Peruvian has long experience as an official in the OAS. Indeed, it is true to say that he is part of an OAS culture that many member states firmly believe requires reform to make it fit for new hemispheric challenges and to deliver on them. Apart from the various positions he has held in the OAS, he has admirable but exclusive experience in Latin America which has restricted broader contacts internationally that might have enhanced his appeal. Since much of Mr Almagro’s support comes from the same Lima Group of which Mr de Zela is the present co-ordinator, the two are contending in identical space.
Regarding Maria Fernanda Espinosa, CARICOM governments could not identify a suitably qualified CARICOM national willing to enter a competition that was not fully and openly backed by all of them. She had impressed many Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers during her stewardship of the last UN General Assembly. She showed qualities of consensus building and inclusion that the OAS now desperately needs in its Secretary-General.
Contrary to the propaganda directed at her candidacy by supporters of her contenders, she was not nominated because of the “influence of Cuba and Venezuela”. As the representative of one of the governments that nominated her, I can state beyond fear of contradiction that no member of the government of Antigua and Barbuda consulted with any government other than CARICOM ones on proposing her. Indeed, it is her “ideological-free” conduct of the UNGA as President that attracted her to a Caribbean that is driven in free and democratic societies by pragmatism and practicality.
What Caribbean governments want is what Mr Almagro pledged in May 2015 at his inauguration as Secretary-General: “We are also living in a world of uncertainty in which power is expressed in the most diverse and increasingly less conventional ways, in which we must advance a positive agenda to help the OAS rise to the occasion and prevent the Hemisphere from relapsing into Cold War practices, which we must avoid by every means. To do so, we have to shore up the negotiation, mediation, and consensus-building skills of this OAS, which brings together all countries of the Hemisphere”. That unfulfilled pledge remains the Caribbean’s greatest ambition for the OAS.
Ms Espinosa has served as Minister in several areas: Foreign Affairs, Defence, Cultural and Natural Heritage. She understands the demands on government and the importance of building bridges in international relations. Her experience as Ambassador to several UN institutions and her engagement with regional governments in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Arab States, places her in a good position to try to unlock new resources for the OAS for sustainable development issues, particularly climate change and financing.
The Caribbean has a stake in which of these three candidates leads the Secretariat of the most influential Organization in our Hemisphere. That is why the region has decided to play an active role in the outcome.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own.