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Latin America’s Critical Election

The Organization of American States has come to play a pivotal role in Latin America, including by monitoring elections, defending human rights, and isolating authoritarian regimes. As a result, the OAS’s upcoming election of a secretary general is one of the most important in its 72-year history.

MEXICO CITY – On March 20, the Organization of American States will convene a special General Assembly to elect a secretary general. Although three candidates are competing, only two are actually in the running: the Uruguayan incumbent, Luis Almagro, and María Fernanda Espinosa, a former president of the United Nations General Assembly from Ecuador. It is one of the most important elections in the OAS’s 72-year history.

Over this period, the OAS has come to play a pivotal role in Latin America, including by monitoring elections, defending human rights, and isolating authoritarian regimes. For example, the body’s electoral observers questioned the integrity of last year’s Bolivian presidential election from the very beginning, and the international audit group they headed eventually determined that the process had been subject to significant tampering. It was largely this finding that led to President Evo Morales’s departure from power. The OAS handled this complicated situation well, and will oversee a fresh presidential vote in May.

In addition, through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the OAS investigates abuses, issues temporary injunctions, and condemns member states for violations. In fact, the organization’s persistent criticism is one reason why Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship finds itself increasingly alone. The OAS has played a similar role in denouncing human-rights violations in Nicaragua, and in the case of the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico, in 2014.

Secretary General Almagro has the endorsement of the overwhelming majority of the region’s democracies. Although he previously served as foreign minister in the leftist Frente Amplio coalition that governed Uruguay for 15 years, Almagro today enjoys the support of the United States, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay. Most Central American countries also have endorsed him. Almagro’s backers all cite his important role in isolating Venezuela’s regime, defending the Inter-American Human Rights system, and resisting ongoing attempts by other countries to take over the institution.

Espinosa, meanwhile, is backed by Mexico and a small group of Caribbean countries – chiefly St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda – that are funded by Venezuela and sympathetic to Cuba. Argentina’s new leftist government under President Alberto Fernández initially intended to support Espinosa wholeheartedly, but subsequently declined to do so, perhaps because of US pressure. Moreover, Espinosa lacks the backing of her own government in Quito. The reason is obvious: Although she served under current Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno, her main role prior to that was former autocrat Rafael Correa’s minister of defense and foreign affairs.

Espinosa does have the support of Cuba, but Cuba is not an OAS member. Furthermore, Venezuela is represented within the organization not by Maduro’s government, but by the internationally recognized interim president, Juan Guaidó, who does not support Espinosa. Even Nicaragua’s vote is uncertain, despite its government’s close links with Cuba and Venezuela. And the other former left-wing or “Bolivarian” states – Bolivia, Uruguay, and El Salvador – have all shifted to the right over the past year.

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Given her links with Correa and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s endorsement, Espinosa is rightly seen as the candidate of Latin America’s Bolivarian and Castroist left. In several interviews, she has refused clearly to label Maduro’s regime a dictatorship. Nor does she seem enthusiastic about continuing to censure government-led repression in Nicaragua, or outsiders’ attempts to meddle in Bolivia’s upcoming election.

If the US and other like-minded OAS member states do their homework and convince three or four Caribbean countries to vote for Almagro, then the Bolivarian faction will lose. Almagro has 17 publicly committed votes; he needs 18. But there is a tradition in the OAS of in situ ambassadors voting on their own in a secret ballot, not least because many of them do not communicate much with their island capitals.

Moreover, there is a chance that Cuba will be able to exert late behind-the-scenes influence, owing to the substantial role that its medical and intelligence personnel play on many of the islands. Likewise, Venezuela has provided these islands with heavily subsidized oil for well over a decade. And Mexico is promoting Espinosa’s candidacy so actively that it is pushing for a single vote from the Caribbean – as if it were a separate group within the OAS.

Unlike on previous occasions, however, the US government seems to be paying attention to the OAS. It has appointed Carlos Trujillo, the US permanent representative to the organization, as President Donald Trump’s special envoy for the upcoming election. Trujillo currently is making rounds across the hemisphere in the hope of securing enough votes for Almagro, especially in the Caribbean.

Under normal circumstances, this effort, along with the growing isolation of the region’s Bolivarian forces, should be sufficient. But in Latin America, nothing is over until it is over. There is a real risk that Almagro’s supporters may be overconfident, or underestimate Cuba’s skill at orienting its allies in the “right” direction.

That risk needs to be minimized. In recent years, the OAS has been a critical, vocal, and effective force for combating authoritarian governments and human-rights violations in Latin America. Maintaining this stance is a worthy and important goal. But it can be achieved only if the organization re-elects Almagro on March 20.

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