Do the OAS and the Summit of the Americas Still Matter?
April 9, 2015
This week, the State Department announced its recommendation that the White House remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. President Obama will likely be quick to act now that State’s recommendation is in, with many anticipating that he will announce Cuba’s removal from the list sometime today (April 9), with rumors swirling that he is eager to do so before the Summit of the Americas later this week (April 10-11). And Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson has hinted that President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro will interact during the Summit, which could amount to the first substantive interaction between leaders of the two countries in decades.
All of this speculation over the potential for a big announcement in the opening of U.S.-Cuba relations just before the Summit could fundamentally impact the tone and agenda of the entire event—both the subject of heavy speculation, as well. This week, Secretary of State John Kerry’s Senior Advisor Tom Shannon traveled to Venezuela to meet with President Nicolas Maduro, which comes in the wake of U.S. sanctions against 7 Venezuelan government officials for human rights violations during popular protests in February of last year. And what seems like an imminent announcement regarding Cuba defines the context of this discussion, as well.
This all has the potential to impact the Summit – a tradition in the region. The Organization of American States (OAS) convened the first Summit of the Americas in 1994. The summits, intended to be a forum for the OAS’s member states to come together and discuss issues of importance to the entire region, provide a rare inclusive forum for regional discussions—and one where Washington still has a seat at the table.
But U.S. participation in the summits is often met with mixed reactions in the region. Though Washington has many strong allies throughout Latin America, there remain countries—traditionally led by Cuba and Venezuela—that are less friendly to U.S. intentions.
So with the United States on a new track with Cuba and on a collision course with Venezuela, what can we expect from this Summit? Will transnational crime, social mobility and corruption—the region's other big challenges—be raised? And do the OAS and the Summit of the Americas still matter?
Q1: What is the current state of the OAS?
A1: First founded in 1948, the Organization of American States (OAS) is intended to promote continental peace and security, strengthen regional democracy, prevent intra-regional disputes, and promote economic, social, and cultural development. But in recent years, the OAS has struggled to find its footing as a cooperative regional forum, increasingly raising questions about its continued relevance in a changing region. Still, the OAS remains the only inclusive regional forum—and the only one that offers Washington a seat at the table with all of its regional neighbors, unlike UNASUR and CELAC.
Though the organization is involved in work that ranges from security to economic development, ultimately, much of the Organization’s work comes out of its core mission to promote democracy through helping to ensure free and fair elections. A respected observer, the OAS’s electoral missions speak to the Organization’s institutional strength and potential.
But the OAS is a bureaucratic behemoth—and this generates its biggest challenge: funding. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, the OAS’s 2014 budget totals US$167 million. And of that, Washington contributes US$48.5 million—almost 60 percent of the organization’s total dues from member states. (It is worth noting here that though the United States contributes the lion’s share of OAS dues, its influence in the organization is far from directly related, as many members continue to be wary of—if not opposed to—U.S. influence in the region.) And other members frequently fail to meet their dues, leading to a nearly-perpetual shortage of cash flow in the organization.
The OAS faces another challenge, as well: its leadership. Under its most recent Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, the organization often shied away from responding to some of the region’s toughest issues—including 2009’s coup controversy in Honduras and 2014’s political conflict in Venezuela. We have yet to see what the new Secretary General, former Uruguayan foreign minister Luis Almagro, will mean for the OAS. Some are wary of his leadership, as Milagro won by default when his competitors dropped out of the election—but all signs point to Milagro’s recognition that the OAS is at a critical juncture, and that its continued relevance is at stake.
Q2: What are the biggest regional challenges that the OAS is facing?
A2: The region is facing a series of challenges, several of them relevant to the OAS.
Corruption continues to be among the region’s biggest problems, with recent scandals surfacing in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. All four now face dwindling support for political institutions and political elites. And given corruption’s importance to democratic consolidation, the issue should be on the OAS’s proverbial radar.
The ongoing political and economic instability in Venezuela will likely provide the most stringent test for Almagro’s tenure. The Venezuelan government continues to suppress its political opposition, jailing protestors and prominent dissidents, including leaders like Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma. With many regional economies reliant on Venezuela oil assistance through its Petrocaribe program, the OAS has historically been hesitant to speak out against the government’s worsening behavior. Just weeks ago, President Obama imposed a new round of sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials—and, in response, President Maduro lashed out at Washington, seeking declarations of support and loyalty from Caracas’s regional allies. Still, the OAS has kept quiet. But under new leadership, with evermore support among the region’s former heads-of-state, and given the new U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials, the OAS could be well positioned to take a stronger stance on this issue.
The deteriorating political situation in Venezuela provides ideal conditions for another phenomenon already flourishing around the region: organized crime. Venezuela continues to be a primary transit nation for cocaine; the countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle have been ravaged by drug-related violence and instability, leading to an immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border; and Mexico, recently lauded for its economic and political progress, is a focal point of criminal activity once again, as exposed in the latest corruption scandals.
These three issues continue to pose real threats to the promotion and consolidation of democracy in the region—and must, as a result, rank high on the OAS’s agenda.
Q3: What can we expect from the upcoming Summit of the Americas?
A3: This Summit of the Americas is an historic one, in large part because it will be the first that Cuba will attend. Inevitably, this will ensure that Cuba—and U.S.-Cuba relations—play a significant role during the Summit.
In large part, this will likely help set the tone. Long a sticking point for Latin American countries in their relations with the United States, the decades-old U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba has very rapidly shifted to one of engagement. And as that relationship has begun to develop since Obama and Castro announced the shift in December, we can already see the ripple effects in public perceptions of Washington throughout Latin America. The State Department’s recommendation is an important step in that direction, and President Obama’s action in kind seems just around the corner.
Still, the changing relationship continues to be a source of tension. Cuba remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism—which Havana says will impede further progress on normalizing relations; the embargo is still in place; the countries have yet to open up embassies and credential ambassadors. So there is work to be done, and that work is far from controversial.
Venezuela’s ongoing instability and diplomatic dispute with the United States will likely play a role as well. President Maduro could work to escalate those tensions during the Summit—and the country’s ALBA partners could stand with Venezuela in solidarity. And, of course, this risks setting a tone deeply negative to U.S. interests and participation in the regional forum.
But should, as seems imminent, President Obama use this opportunity to make a major announcement in U.S.-Cuba relations, he has the potential to fundamentally define the tone and narrative for the entire Summit.
Conclusions: Whatever happens this week in Panama City, the OAS and the Summit of the Americas continue to play an important role in the region as the only truly inclusive forum for discussions of the region’s most pressing challenges and opportunities. And, as the only such regional forum to include the United States, it is important for U.S. interests that its relevance be maintained and its reputation reinvigorated.
The United States is at the brink of a major turning point in its relations with Latin America. With the start of normalization with Havana, Washington is on track to leave behind a long-outdated Cold War mindset in the region—and for its relationships in the region to evolve, in kind. And, as a result, this year’s Summit of the Americas carries real potential for the United States in solidifying its image as a modern partner with its regional neighbors.
But that potential is far from guaranteed. So will the administration seize this opportunity?
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty, program coordinator and research assistant, and Juan Osuna, intern scholar, both with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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