Time for a Caribbean OAS secretary general ...But who?

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, November 04, 2018

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OVER the last 70 years since its formation the Organization of American States (OAS) has had 10 secretaries general and one acting secretary general. None have come from the Caribbean, even though Caribbean countries started being members of the organisation from its inception in 1948 (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), or 1967 (Trinidad and Tobago), if we take account of English-speaking Caribbean countries only. It's time for a Caribbean secretary general of the OAS.

Using 1967 as the start date for English-speaking Caribbean countries, in 51 years no English-speaking Caribbean country has held the post of secretary general. The holders of the post have come from Colombia: (twice) 1948–1954, Alberto Lleras Camargo and 1994–2004, César Gaviria; Chile: (twice) 1954 –1955, Carlos Dávila (died in office) and 2005–2015, José Miguel Insulza; Uruguay: (twice) 1956–1968, José A Mora and 2015 to the present, Luis Almagro; Ecuador: 1968–1975, Galo Plaza; Argentina: 1975–1984, Alejandro Orfila; Brazil: 1984–1994, João Clemente Baena Soares; Costa Rica: September 15, 2004 – October 15, 2004, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (resigned); USA: October 15, 2004 – May 26, 2005, Luigi R Einaudi (acted).

The Caribbean has been relegated to the assistant secretary general post for 33 years, between 1980 and 2018, except for an intervening five-year period (2000-2005) when the US held the post. The other holders of the assistant secretary general post in the history of the organisation have been the US, three times (William Manger, 1948–1958; William Sanders, 1958–1968; Luigi R Einaudi, 2000-2005); El Salvador, once (Rafael Urquía, 1968–1975); and Guatemala, once (Jorge Luis Zelaya Coronado, 1975-1980).

From the Caribbean the following persons and countries held the assistant secretary general post: Val T McComie (Barbados, 1980–1990); Christopher R Thomas (Trinidad and Tobago, 1990–2000); Albert Ramdin (Suriname, 2005–2015); and Nestor Mendez (Belize, 2015 to present). In the latest case, Belize is a member of both the Caricom and Central American groups.

I have recounted all these details to illustrate the point that with 14 Caribbean Community (Caricom) states in the now 34-member OAS (almost half the membership), after at least 51 years of membership of the organisation, the Caribbean merits a turn at holding the post of secretary general.

The OAS is desperately in need of reform. It has been struggling financially for many years and its condition is getting no better. Governments are reluctant to increase their membership fees or to put more money into it because of its lack of performance in almost all the pillars of its structure. These are democracy, human rights, security, and development.

Recent negotiations revealed deep chasms between member states, particularly over the allocation of resources. In the end, a budget was agreed, but few were satisfied with the outcome.

The division emerged largely between Caricom states, which wanted more allocations for development and security, and the four countries that pay the largest subscriptions — the US, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada — which argued for more resources for democracy and human rights.

Many other countries sat on the fence, either because they were genuinely torn between the priorities for funding or because they did not want to be targeted as resisting any attempt to strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law.

In these negotiations there was little focus on how the organisation could be improved to deliver benefits to the people of all its member states. The struggle was for the supremacy of the national positions, particularly those of the more powerful member states.

What did not happen in these intense, and sometimes rancorous negotiations, was any attempt by the secretary general or the General Secretariat to contribute to the process with a healing touch or a bridge-building solution.

The charter of the OAS, negotiated 70 years ago at a different time in the history of the Americas — one in which the United States, primarily, was bargaining with Latin American states, many of them ruled by dictators and military governments — represents what was then politically possible. It is not fit for purpose in today's world, where circumstances have changed dramatically and where new challenges have arisen.

Today instant communication via the Internet; transmission of images through Facebook and Instagram; immediate information by Whatsapp and LinkedIn have exploded the world of secrecy and of knowledge suppression. Oppressive governments cannot hide their actions, and opposition groups cannot conceal efforts at undemocratic behaviour. Events such as these require a responsive OAS, not one that is paralysed by bureaucracy.

Similarly, if the OAS is to be relevant to Caribbean countries it must also become more alert and reactive to their development and security needs. After all, the majority of Caribbean countries in the OAS have a far more impressive record of upholding democracy and human rights than many other member states. But democracy and human rights are not sustainable in circumstances of underdevelopment and vulnerability to security threats, including global warming and sea level rise. Each is necessary to the other.

Caravans of migrants heading for the borders of the rich do not arise only from political repression; mostly they are driven by economic deprivation, poverty and want — conditions from which the majority of Caribbean countries have raised up themselves, with no wish to return.

For all these reasons, the charter of the OAS urgently needs reform and its institutions require root and branch review and strengthening, particularly the relationship between the organs representing the member governments and the secretary general.

The Caribbean has enough talented and experienced individuals to help reform its charter, strengthen its institutions, refashion its operations, and make it fit for purpose and relevant to the people of all its member states. The region has the capacity to provide a secretary general when Luis Almagro's current term ends in 2020 and consideration should be given now to who the best candidate would be.

If Caricom countries are divided over a candidate, others will take advantage of that division to insert their own candidate — as has happened with other organisations. In the process, the Caribbean will continue to be relegated to second position.

The position offers the Caribbean the real opportunity to contribute to the improvement and enhancement of the OAS and to lift the profile and influence of the region.


Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's ambassador to the US, Organization of American States, and high commissioner to Canada; an international affairs consultant; as well as senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto, and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He previously served as ambassador to the European Union and the World Trade Organization and as high commissioner to the UK. The views expressed are his own. For responses and to view previous commentaries:

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