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Secretary General José Miguel Insulza on the OAS Role in the Western Hemisphere

May 14, 2008

“The sub-regional integration institutions will gather more strength. But we still need a forum for hemispheric dialogue.”

José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of Americas States, spoke with AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis following an Americas Society/Council of the Americas event about the OAS role in promoting democracy in Latin America. In recent months, the OAS has played a central role in negotiations related to regional matters, including a vote on autonomy in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz province and the March Andean standoff between Colombia and its neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela after a Colombian attack on a FARC camp inside Ecuador’s borders. “What I think is that the OAS has to prove itself as the main forum for political dialogue in the Americas, prove itself to be a bona fide intermediary in the problems among or within countries, and especially act very independently based only on Inter-American law,” said Insulza of the organization, now in its sixtieth year.

AS/COA: During your remarks you discussed the recent Andean crisis. There’s been discussion about the role of the OAS in that matter. You talked about how quickly the OAS had to respond to that issue. Can you talk about how that has affected the OAS and the process by which various issues are handled?

Insulza: We have tried very hard this year, not only to be relevant but to be timely at the same time. I fear all the time that something will happen as it did with the Venezuela crisis; in 2002, after the president was deposed, the council met and they were still meeting when the president was re-instated.

I think [the handling of the recent crisis] has given us a lot of legitimacy to work on the process. Basically, we were very evenhanded. We understood the Colombian motives, we understood the Ecuadorian rights, and we managed to forge a consensus on that.

I think that was helpful for the organization, and that people were very proud of the organization.

AS/COA: I am wondering how the issue is going to be handled going forward. For example, Interpol will be releasing information about the files on a confiscated laptop of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [linking the presidents of Ecuador and Colombia to the rebel group].

Insulza: What I understand is that the information that Interpol is going to announce tomorrow is basically technical information. We have these disks inside the computers; is it possible to make sure that they were not manipulated? Is it possible to ascertain in what wa the information was placed into them? What Interpol cannot do is assert the truth in the statements. I think that will have to be, if the countries want it, it will have to be clarified in some way.

AS/COA: And is there a way that the OAS can handle that?

Insulza: If they ask us, we will handle, certainly, any consequences that that might have for Colombian-Ecuadorian relations. That’s our task. If they ask us to do something, we will.

AS/COA: Since then, there’s been another crisis that you mentioned involving the Santa Cruz referendum. Can you talk about the OAS role in that crisis and tensions in Bolivia?

Insulza: Well, In Bolivia what we’re trying to do is to be observers in the negotiations because we are fully convinced that matters are to be negotiated and agreed on. The two sides may not like each other but they have to live with each other. If they are going to live in a unified Bolivia, they will have to live with each other. We’re trying very hard to work on that. We are going to observe, of course, the elections and referendums, but they’re willing to rejoin the negotiations again.

AS/COA: Another issue that you talked about was the issue of hunger and food which is a little bit more amorphous than some of these border issues and autonomy issues, what role do you foresee the OAS playing?

Insulza: We only can play a role of trying to coordinate with organizations. We don’t have the material resources [to resolve hunger issues]. What we can do is try to set the lines policy, and we are probably going to is to discuss that in our assembly this June. We have an agreement with the World Food Programme, which is, from my point of view, the institution which gives most support in handling the problem and the most acute aspects of the crisis.

AS/COA: Do you see a possibility for the food crisis to threaten democracy in the region?

Insulza: I think in some of the poorest countries that might happen. In the other countries, it will have an affect because of the fact that if there’s no food and people don’t have the money to buy it, governments will have to provide the funds, and probably, therefore, leave unfunded other programs which are very important for their development. But I see possibility of crisis in only some countries. Of the 33 in the world that are affected by upheaval, I would say no more that three or four are in Latin America.

AS/COA: You mentioned the sixtieth anniversary of the organization. How do you see the organization evolving now and in the near future, given some of the issues and the crises you mentioned?

Insulza: What I think is that the OAS has to prove itself as the main forum for political dialogue in the Americas, prove itself to be a bona fide intermediary in the problems among or within countries, and especially act very independently based only on Inter-American law. If we do that we might continue having legitimacy in region that’s very much sub-regionalized. The sub-regional integration institutions will gather more strength. But we still need a forum for hemispheric dialogue.

AS/COA: Another issue that you discussed was Cuba, and I was wondering if you can talk a little bit more how the OAS can play a  role at this time in Cuba in terms of advancing democracy? What do you see that role being? 

Insulza: I think in the policy of cooperation, if we are going to have hemispheric cooperation, I will hope that the U.S. will understand that it is not their interest for them or the best way to bilateralize the whole issue of Cuba. Maybe we should try to do it multilaterally in an organization that can work for them and for the rest of the hemisphere, and therefore forge common policies to the Cuban opening. We are willing to do that.