COMMENTARY: A Caribbean Secretary-General for the OAS


By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States 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 his own)

It’s time for a Caribbean Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States.

Over the last 70 years, since its formation, the 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. 

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; 1994–2004, César Gaviria; Chile (twice): 1954 –1955, Carlos Dávila (died in office) 2005–2015, José Miguel Insulza; Uruguay (twice): 1956–1968, José A. Mora; 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: 15 September 2004 – 15 October 2004, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (resigned); USA: 15 October 2004 – 26 May 2005, Luigi R. Einaudi (acted as SG).

The Caribbean has been relegated to the Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) post for 33 years between 1980 and 2018, except for an intervening 5-year period, 2000-2005, when the U.S. held the post.

The other holders of the ASG post in the history of the Organisation have been: The U.S. 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 ASG 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 latter 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 Organization, the Caribbean merits a turn at holding the post of Secretary-General.   

The Organisation 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 U.S., 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 Linked-In 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 under-development 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 persons 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 also 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.

Responses and previous commentaries:

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    Nothing is impossible. Conversely, some things do not happen easily.

    Not sure what impact a Secretary-General from the Caribbean could make on a membership with more, (a) ‘…Voices; (b) …Votes; (c) …resources; and (d) …political influence.’

    It should be obvious to all a sundry, that until that organization becomes ‘…Organization of Caribbean States,’ it is hardly likely that it would be headed by a Caribbean personality.

    Even with almost half its membership, Caribbean States are not only still in the minority, but also influentially weak.

    Logic dictates that since it is called the ‘OAS,’ primarily dominated by the ‘…North; …Central and South American nations (Continentally),’ with more people and resources and wield more influence, one might be indulging in illusions to believe that someone from the ‘CARICOM/OECS’ would easily be selected to lead the organizational pack.

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