How the Leader of the OAS Became a Right-Wing Hawk—And Paved the Way for Bolivia’s Coup

The Organization of American States is not a neutral arbiter. Just looks at its secretary general, Luis Almagro.

Branko Marcetic November 21, 2019

The Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro waves upon arrival at the National Theatre in Lima to attend the Eighth Summit of the Americas inauguration ceremony, on April 13, 2018. (CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP via Getty Images)

When for­mer Uruguayan For­eign Min­is­ter Luis Alma­gro took the helm of the Orga­ni­za­tion for Amer­i­can States (OAS) in 2015, mem­bers of the U.S. Right despaired that the inter­gov­ern­men­tal body would be head­ed by yet anoth­er Latin Amer­i­can left­ist and friend of Washington’s foes. Four years lat­er, those same right-wing forces cheered as Alma­gro led the charge for the over­throw of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and the OAS con­tributed to a coup in Bolivia.

The OAS has long been viewed as a tool of U.S. foreign influence, thanks in large part to the U.S. government’s outsized funding of the organization.

The OAS is a region­al forum of 34 states that acts some­thing like the Unit­ed Nations of the Amer­i­c­as. Alma­gro and the OAS have come under the spot­light in recent weeks, thanks to their con­tro­ver­sial role in Bolivia’s most recent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. After win­ning a fourth straight term last month, long­time indige­nous left­ist pres­i­dent Evo Morales left office and fled the coun­try in what appears to be a text­book coup: The head of the mil­i­tary called for his res­ig­na­tion, as vio­lence against his sup­port­ers surged. The OAS has fall­en under increas­ing crit­i­cism in recent weeks, after its con­test­ed claims of irreg­u­lar­i­ties and clear manip­u­la­tions” by the Morales side were used by the oppo­si­tion, both Boli­vian and Amer­i­can, to inval­i­date the elec­tion results — and inten­si­fy pres­sure to oust Morales.

The OAS took a polit­i­cal deci­sion, not a tech­ni­cal or legal one,” Morales charged from Mex­i­co, where he had been grant­ed asy­lum after pro­test­ers ran­sacked his home and kid­napped and abused his allies. The OAS is in the ser­vice of the North Amer­i­can empire.”

The OAS came under sim­i­lar crit­i­cism from the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research (CEPR), a left-lean­ing eco­nom­ic think-tank based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., which dis­put­ed the OAS’ claims of elec­tion fraud. There is sim­ply no sta­tis­ti­cal or evi­den­tiary basis to dis­pute the vote count results show­ing that Evo Morales won in the first round,” CEPR Senior Pol­i­cy Ana­lyst Guil­laume Long said on Novem­ber 8, releas­ing a paper that showed a step-by-step break­down dis­put­ing the con­clu­sions of OAS.

This inci­dent is just the lat­est in Almagro’s con­tro­ver­sial posi­tion as sec­re­tary gen­er­al of the OAS, elect­ed by a major­i­ty of mem­ber states, a posi­tion he hopes to con­tin­ue for anoth­er five years after his cur­rent term expires in May 2020. Alma­gro start­ed his career in Uruguay’s con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­tics before sud­den­ly mor­ph­ing into a com­mit­ted Pink Tider, and he once again changed his tune upon becom­ing OAS sec­re­tary gen­er­al. This shift is par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in his wide­ly-crit­i­cized oppo­si­tion to Maduro — a devel­op­ment suc­ces­sive U.S. admin­is­tra­tions have been eager to take advan­tage of to pur­sue their inter­ests through an orga­ni­za­tion they wor­ry they’ve lost con­trol of.

Per­sis­tent U.S. influence

The OAS has long been viewed as a tool of U.S. for­eign influ­ence, thanks in large part to the U.S. government’s out­sized fund­ing of the orga­ni­za­tion. Even as late as 2018, the U.S. pro­vid­ed 60% of the institution’s annu­al budget.

From the begin­ning, the U.S. wield­ed sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence over the orga­ni­za­tion, which exclud­ed Cuba from because its Marx­ist-Lenin­ist gov­ern­ment” was incom­pat­i­ble with the prin­ci­ples and objec­tives of the inter-Amer­i­can sys­tem,” as the OAS put it. The sub­se­quent decades would see a range of auto­crat­ic — even geno­ci­dal — gov­ern­ments remain mem­bers of the OAS, while the U.S. most­ly made a mock­ery of its prin­ci­ples, as when Ronald Rea­gan vio­lat­ed its charter’s ban on the use of armed forces against a fel­low mem­ber with his administration’s 1983 inva­sion of Grenada.

U.S. influ­ence over the OAS deplet­ed dur­ing the post-Cold War era, and the vast major­i­ty of the OAS’ work in observ­ing elec­tions was above board. But the U.S. could still exert influ­ence in strate­gic moments. Dur­ing the 2009 coup in Hon­duras, then-Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Clin­ton leaned on the OAS to back new elec­tions and keep oust­ed Pres­i­dent Manuel Zelaya from return­ing to pow­er — or as she put it in her mem­oir, ren­der the ques­tion of Zelaya moot.”

Despite its weak­en­ing influ­ence, there is broad acknowl­edge­ment with­in the U.S. gov­ern­ment that the OAS con­tin­ues to be a vehi­cle for U.S. interests. 

The Unit­ed States his­tor­i­cal­ly has sought to use the OAS to advance eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and secu­ri­ty objec­tives in the West­ern Hemi­sphere,” a 2014 Con­gres­sion­al report states. The organization’s goals and day-to-day activ­i­ties are still gen­er­al­ly con­sis­tent with U.S. pol­i­cy toward the region, but the U.S. gov­ern­ment has strug­gled to obtain sup­port from oth­er mem­ber states on some high-pro­file issues.”

Like­wise, a 2018 GAO report found that the strate­gic goals of the OAS” and oth­er U.S.-financed orga­ni­za­tions are pre­dom­i­nant­ly aligned with the strate­gic goals of State, USAID, HHS, and USDA. These goals include a secure and demo­c­ra­t­ic future for all cit­i­zens in Latin Amer­i­ca and the Caribbean,” expand­ed eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty and pros­per­i­ty for the hemi­sphere,” and a pub­lic opin­ion envi­ron­ment that is sup­port­ive of U.S. pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives,” the report states.

A right­ward shift

When Luis Alma­gro became OAS Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary in March 2015, it at first appeared he would push against these his­tor­i­cal trends. From 2010 on, Alma­gro had served as the for­eign min­is­ter for the Uruguyan gov­ern­ment head­ed by Jose Pepe” Muji­ca, part of the Pink Tide of left­ist gov­ern­ments that had swept to pow­er in Latin Amer­i­ca at the dawn of the 21st cen­tu­ry. Upon being nom­i­nat­ed to helm the OAS, Mujica’s gov­ern­ment spent no small amount of polit­i­cal cap­i­tal mak­ing sure Alma­gro won. Alma­gro lat­er said Muji­ca had played a deci­sive role.” When his sole rival dropped out of the con­test due to health con­cerns, Alma­gro ascend­ed to the position.

This was unhap­py news to con­ser­v­a­tives. Under Muji­ca, Alma­gro had pushed to revoke the 1986 amnesty law pro­tect­ing Uruguay’s for­mer mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship from pros­e­cu­tion for crimes against human­i­ty, react­ed to Osama Bin Laden’s 2011 assas­si­na­tion by say­ing no death should be cel­e­brat­ed,” and joined Bolivia, Brazil and Argenti­na in call­ing for recog­ni­tion of a Pales­tin­ian state in 2010. But most wor­ry­ing to the Right was his atti­tude toward Venezuela: On the first anniver­sary of for­mer Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez’s death, Alma­gro declared Chavez had rein­vent­ed Latin Amer­i­ca.” And when Maduro’s gov­ern­ment clashed with pro­test­ers and vio­lent right-wing forces in 2014, Alma­gro blamed both sides” for the ensu­ing violence.

Sev­er­al con­ser­v­a­tive news­pa­pers and think tanks raised alarm about his sup­port for Chav­is­mo. Right-lean­ing Mia­mi Her­ald colum­nist Andres Oppen­heimer warned that Alma­gro and one oth­er can­di­date were caus­ing con­cern — and in some cas­es, alarm — in inter­na­tion­al cir­cles for the defense of human rights.” Oppen­heimer wrote that Alma­gro was Venezuela’s favorite,” warn­ing of his close ties with Iran,” owing to the five years he had spent in the Uruguayan embassy in Tehran. Sonia Oso­rio, colum­nist with the El Nue­vo Her­ald, a Span­ish-lan­guage paper in Flori­da, like­wise called him a diplo­mat with close ties to Chav­is­mo who also main­tains wor­ry­ing rela­tions with Iran.”

Upon ascend­ing to the head of the OAS, Alma­gro appeared to con­firm con­ser­v­a­tives’ fears. He con­tin­ued his elec­tion-promise call for Cuba’s rein­te­gra­tion into the OAS. In August 2015, he announced he deplore[d] the acts of the [OAS] that val­i­dat­ed” the 1965 U.S. inva­sion of the Domini­can Repub­lic, twist­ing the sov­er­eign path cho­sen by its peo­ple.” Pledg­ing ear­ly on to leave the OAS behind the Cold War,” he promised to return the OAS to a cred­i­bil­i­ty that every­one demands,” and be the facil­i­ta­tor of its renewal.”

But his choice of tran­si­tion team hint­ed at the direc­tion he would end up going. Besides Luis Por­to, a Uruguayan econ­o­mist who had served in var­i­ous posi­tions under Muji­ca, Almagro’s tran­si­tion to the new post was also head­ed by Dan Restre­po. Obama’s Latin Amer­i­ca advis­er, Restre­po has a long his­to­ry with the cor­po­rate-fund­ed lib­er­al think tank Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress (CAP), and he con­tin­ued to advise Alma­gro for at least the next year.

As spe­cial coun­sel to Wash­ing­ton law firm Jones Walk­er LLP since 2014 — a year before head­ing Almagro’s tran­si­tion, and a posi­tion he still holds today — Restre­po works on behalf of a wide range of clients, includ­ing multi­na­tion­al media and tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies, inde­pen­dent ener­gy pro­duc­ers, pri­vate equi­ty funds, major con­sumer prod­ucts com­pa­nies, major infra­struc­ture com­pa­nies, and glob­al law firms,” accord­ing to his bio on the firm’s site. While those clients aren’t list­ed, some of Jones Walker’s lob­by­ing clients over the past five years includ­ed Cit­i­group, JP Mor­gan Chase, Sasol Chem­i­cals, tobac­co com­pa­ny Pyxus Inter­na­tion­al, and oil-drilling com­pa­ny Her­cules Off­shore Inc. These are all exact­ly the kinds of firms that have itched to access the vast nat­ur­al wealth of Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries gov­erned by left­ist pop­ulists like Chavez and Morales

Provo­ca­tions towards Maduro

It took many months for Alma­gro to become more bull­ish on Venezuela, fol­low­ing Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Nicolás Maduro’s repeat­ed rejec­tion of his offer to send OAS elec­tion observers to the coun­try. Novem­ber 2015 saw Alma­gro send a harsh­ly word­ed let­ter to the pres­i­dent of the country’s Nation­al Elec­toral Coun­cil, crit­i­ciz­ing the upcom­ing elec­toral process and warn­ing it lacked trans­paren­cy and elec­toral jus­tice.” The let­ter prompt­ed pub­lic reproach from Muji­ca, who rebuked the direc­tion” Alma­gro was tak­ing, and for­mal­ly told him good­bye.” The let­ter also gar­nered pub­lic praise from hawk­ish Rep. Eliot Engel (D‑N.Y.), chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on For­eign Affairs. Despite Almagro’s pre­emp­tive efforts to cast the elec­tions as ille­git­i­mate, the Venezue­lan oppo­si­tion won in a land­slide, secur­ing a two-thirds super­ma­jor­i­ty in the Nation­al Assem­bly with which they vowed to force Maduro from office.

A series of tit-for-tat esca­la­tions between the gov­ern­ment and the oppo­si­tion spi­raled out of con­trol over the next few years. The Maduro gov­ern­ment and its loy­al­ist-con­trolled Supreme Court took increas­ing­ly author­i­tar­i­an steps to nul­li­fy the opposition’s exist­ing and future elec­toral gains. And the oppo­si­tion resort­ed to alarm­ing mea­sures and con­tin­ued use of vio­lence to foment a cri­sis it could use to achieve its long­stand­ing goal of oust­ing Maduro and revers­ing Chav­is­mo. Rather than choose a path of diplo­ma­cy to help end the cri­sis, Alma­gro chose a more provoca­tive approach, sid­ing with the country’s vio­lent, right-wing opposition.

As Hen­ry Ramos Allup, the oppo­si­tion head of Venezuela’s Nation­al Assem­bly, called for the OAS to take a tougher posi­tion, Alma­gro put out a scathing 132-page report that backed the oppo­si­tions’ calls for a recall ref­er­en­dum. Alma­gro also invoked the OAS’ Demo­c­ra­t­ic Char­ter, sug­gest­ing Venezuela could be sus­pend­ed from the orga­ni­za­tion. Alma­gro engaged repeat­ed­ly in an inflam­ma­to­ry war of words with Maduro, respond­ing to his insults by call­ing him a pet­ty dic­ta­tor” and a trai­tor.” Pri­or to a July OAS debate over the recall, Alma­gro met with Allup, and Almagro’s effort to pass the recall was backed by a num­ber of right-wing for­mer Latin Amer­i­can pres­i­dents, includ­ing Peru’s Ale­jan­dro Tole­do, Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, and Cos­ta Rica’s Lau­ra Chinchilla.

The gov­ern­ments of coun­tries like Ecuador, Argenti­na and Chile, in turn, raised con­cerns about Almagro’s sys­tem­at­ic aggres­sions” against the coun­try. When Alma­gro pushed for the recall at a meet­ing of the OAS per­ma­nent coun­cil, mem­ber states reject­ed his call for a more intense inter­ven­tion in Venezuela, instead urg­ing dia­logue. Accord­ing to CEPR Direc­tor of Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­cy Alexan­der Main, mem­ber states reject­ed his call for a more intense inter­ven­tion in Venezuela, instead urg­ing dia­logue. Main told The Real News Net­work that Alma­gro would become an instru­ment of the [U.S.] state department…to inter­vene in the inter­nal affairs of mem­ber states.” In June 2016, the for­eign min­is­ter of Venezuela — whose back­ing from OAS mem­ber states had by this point tak­en a ding thanks to Maduro’s actions — urged the OAS Gen­er­al Assem­bly to put a break on Almagro’s actions. She received a round of applause.

But per­haps most con­tro­ver­sial was Almagro’s rela­tion­ship with Leopol­do López, the right-wing leader of the Venezue­lan oppo­si­tion then under house arrest. In August 2016, Alma­gro wrote a trea­cly eight-page let­ter to his esteemed friend Leopol­do,” telling López he felt immense­ly close to the injus­tice you are suf­fer­ing.” López was one of the few” exam­ples of pub­lic great­ness,” Alma­gro lat­er wrote. In July 2017, the two had a pub­li­cized phone con­ver­sa­tion, agree­ing to con­tin­ue work­ing for the return of democ­ra­cy to Venezuela and the recov­ery of the rights of the Venezue­lan peo­ple,” accord­ing to an OAS state­ment.

Far from the Gand­hi-like fig­ure paint­ed by Alma­gro, how­ev­er, López is an elite scion with Repub­li­can ties who was described by a diplo­mat in Cara­cas as a divi­sive fig­ure with­in the oppo­si­tion” who is arro­gant, vin­dic­tive, and pow­er-hun­gry.” More alarm­ing­ly, he had backed and played a role in the 2002 mil­i­tary coup against the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed Chavez.

This all stood in stark con­trast to the 2016 removal of Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Dil­ma Rous­eff by a cor­rupt right-wing oppo­si­tion via impeach­ment, wide­ly char­ac­ter­ized as a par­lia­men­tary coup.” The OAS con­clud­ed in April 2016 that Rousseff’s impeach­ment does not fit with­in the rules that gov­ern this process.” But in prac­tice, the organization’s response to her removal was mut­ed com­pared to Venezuela, with the OAS only express­ing only vague con­cern.”

In con­cert with a far-right Trump admin­is­tra­tion, Alma­gro has con­tin­ued to inten­si­fy pres­sure on the coun­try, and esca­late Venezuela’s eco­nom­ic and human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis through a bru­tal series of sanc­tions. As the Trump admin­is­tra­tion worked with oppo­si­tion leader Juan Guai­do to this end, Alma­gro tweet­ed in Jan­u­ary 2019, We con­grat­u­late [Guai­do] as Pres­i­dent in charge of Venezuela. He has our full sup­port and recog­ni­tion to push the return of his coun­try to democ­ra­cy.” Guia­do, who even­tu­al­ly vowed to pur­sue a pro­gram of neolib­er­al­iza­tion, was described by the Asso­ci­at­ed Press as a loy­al acolyte of López for years,” coor­di­nat­ing his speech­es and deci­sions with López, with whom he spoke half a dozen times a day.

Alma­gro spoke in 2018 to the Inter­na­tion­al Coali­tion for Venezuela — a group formed part­ly by for­mer oppo­si­tion leader Pablo Med­i­na, who once called for Chavez to be inves­ti­gat­ed for trea­son.” Dur­ing the address, Alma­gro crit­i­cized nego­ti­a­tions between Maduro and the oppo­si­tion that were hap­pen­ing at the time. No elec­tion that comes out of this dic­ta­tor­ship, under these con­di­tions, will bring a polit­i­cal change for the peo­ple of Venezuela,” he said, adding: We have no time for short and weak steps.”

He insist­ed in Sep­tem­ber 2018 the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty should not rule out any action” to alle­vi­ate Venezue­lan suf­fer­ing, includ­ing mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion aimed at over­throw­ing the régime.” He repeat­ed this call in 2019, invok­ing com­par­isons with Rwan­dan geno­cide to argue that mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion against Venezuela could be jus­ti­fied under inter­na­tion­al law. Alma­gro even appeared to back a mil­i­tary over­throw, when Guai­do ral­lied Venezue­lan mil­i­tary sup­port­ers at an air base in Cara­cas in April 2019. We wel­come the adhe­sion of the mil­i­tary to the Con­sti­tu­tion and to the Pres­i­dent in charge of #Venezuela @jguaido,” he tweet­ed on April 30.

Mean­while, Alma­gro jet­ti­soned his ear­li­er attempts at rap­proche­ment with Cuba. He has labelled the Cubans in Venezuela, many of whom are doc­tors, an occu­pa­tion force that teach­es how to tor­ture and repress, that per­forms intel­li­gence, civ­il iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and migra­tion ser­vices.” In 2018, as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion reversed his predecessor’s con­cil­ia­to­ry approach to the coun­try in favor of anoth­er eco­nom­ic squeeze, Alma­gro omi­nous­ly intoned that we can­not allow the Cuban peo­ple to con­tin­ue to be oppressed by an infa­mous dictatorship.”

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the right wing that once despaired over Almagro’s elec­tion also did a U‑turn. Luis Fleis­chman is an advi­sor to the Menges Hemi­spher­ic Secu­ri­ty Project in Wash­ing­ton — part of the far-right think tank Cen­ter for Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy, run by the vir­u­lent­ly anti-immi­grant Frank Gaffney. In Novem­ber 2017, Fleish­man praised Almagro’s his exem­plary lead­er­ship,” call­ing him the most out­stand­ing and hero­ic voice fight­ing for democ­ra­cy in Venezuela.” Fleis­chman report­ed that Alma­gro had said, If there is any chance of restor­ing democ­ra­cy in Venezuela, it is in the hands of the U.S., whose sanc­tions can hit the régime hard.”

Those sanc­tions were cal­cu­lat­ed by the CEPR as hav­ing caused 40,000 extra deaths in Venezuela from 2017 to 2018. And on August 8, Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er and for­mer Chilean Pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet deter­mined that the sanc­tions were deep­en­ing the country’s eco­nom­ic cri­sis. Yet Alma­gro main­tained it was ridicu­lous” to blame the sanc­tions for Venezue­lans’ suf­fer­ing, and crit­i­cized Bachelet’s words as anoth­er sanc­tion against the Venezue­lan people.”

She should have start­ed off by say­ing that the prin­ci­pal prob­lem that affects the Venezue­lan peo­ple are the thieves who are part of the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment,” he said. The attempts to appease an infa­mous dic­ta­tor­ship … are tru­ly inconceivable.”

Shift­ing loyalties

What account­ed for Almagro’s dra­mat­ic about-face?

One must first look at the finan­cial sit­u­a­tion of the OAS. The orga­ni­za­tion had been run­ning deficits for years, not helped by the fact that some of its major con­trib­u­tors, like Venezuela and Brazil, had often failed to pay their dues. Peter Quil­ter, the OAS’ for­mer sec­re­tary for admin­is­tra­tion and finance, described the OAS in 2018 as oper­at­ing in the con­text of a full-blown finan­cial cri­sis,” with noth­ing left to cut” but staff.

This threat­ened both Almagro’s stat­ed goal of turn­ing the OAS’ focus on human rights and reviv­ing it into a new­ly promi­nent influ­en­tial body. Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing this was that U.S. law­mak­ers, hos­tile to Venezuela and strug­gling to see the point of an orga­ni­za­tion that reg­u­lar­ly defied U.S. geopo­lit­i­cal goals, open­ly ques­tioned whether they should keep fund­ing the OAS. This includ­ed the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, which float­ed large cuts to inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions upon com­ing into office.

The oth­er is Almagro’s own polit­i­cal his­to­ry. In Jan­u­ary 2016, Anto­nio Mer­cad­er, right-lean­ing colum­nist and for­mer Uruguayan ambas­sador to the OAS, wrote that no one should have been sur­prised, since polit­i­cal zigzag­ging is a con­stant in Almagro’s career.” He was involved in the con­ser­v­a­tive Divisa Blan­ca par­ty that sup­port­ed mil­i­tary amnesty, and was a mem­ber of the cen­ter-right Nation­al Par­ty before join­ing Mujica’s Broad Front coali­tion of left-wing par­ties. Con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cian and for­mer Nation­al Par­ty can­di­date, Luis Lacalle Pou, looked dim­ly on Almagro’s 180 degree turn on Venezuela, stat­ing in 2016, Such rapid changes are not credible.”

Mean­while, Almagro’s own par­ty reject­ed his approach. Tabaré Vázquez, who pre­ced­ed and then suc­ceed­ed Muji­ca as Uruguayan pres­i­dent and Broad Front leader, and is con­sid­ered a cen­trist on both the domes­tic and for­eign pol­i­cy fronts, said in 2016, We dis­agree with the atti­tude he has tak­en” in regards to Venezuela. Vázquez, whose term ends March 1, 2020, has tact­ful­ly declined to sup­port Almagro’s re-elec­tion to the posi­tion as of August. Alma­gro has, how­ev­er, received the back­ing of the U.S.

Not a neu­tral arbiter

Mean­while, the U.S. government’s rela­tion­ship to the OAS is more com­plex than many assume. U.S. offi­cials acknowl­edge that U.S. influ­ence over the orga­ni­za­tion has waned since its hal­cy­on days dur­ing the Cold War, par­tic­u­lar­ly once the Chavez gov­ern­ment used its nation­al­ized oil indus­try to weak­en Latin Amer­i­can eco­nom­ic depen­dence on the U.S., and once the Pink Tide has­tened a turn away from the neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic poli­cies still favored by U.S. officials.

Under Trump, how­ev­er — and with Alma­gro at the helm — U.S. offi­cials have begun mov­ing away from their dis­ap­point­ment with the OAS to dis­cussing how they can bet­ter use the orga­ni­za­tion to meet their goals. In Feb­ru­ary 2018, the House For­eign Affairs Committee’s Sub­com­mit­tee on the West­ern Hemi­sphere held a hear­ing on Advanc­ing U.S. Inter­ests Through the Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States,” where com­mit­tee mem­ber Rep. Albio Sires (D‑N.J.) said he was eager to hear from our pan­el on how we can improve engage­ment with the OAS and bet­ter enable them to be the leader in the region.”

When asked where is its use­ful­ness” by Sires, the for­mer OAS sec­re­tary for admin­is­tra­tion and finance, Peter Quil­ter, explained how to strate­gi­cal­ly make use of the organization’s var­i­ous bod­ies and respon­si­bil­i­ties, includ­ing elec­tion mon­i­tor­ing. For a coun­try like the U.S., the trick is to uti­lize or to try to get as much done with­in each of these — each of these — with each of these tools at it can,” he said. I actu­al­ly think the OAS has done a decent amount of things on Venezuela,” he added, point­ing to, among oth­er things, the 2017 res­o­lu­tion and Almagro’s statements.

Per­haps that’s as far as we could go as the U.S. on that issue,” he con­tin­ued. So you put a momen­tary stop on that and you look at oth­er issues and try and keep advanc­ing the call. I think that is the way to uti­lize these organizations.”

Rep. Adri­ano Espail­lat (D‑N.Y.) resolved, We must regain the abil­i­ty to invest in the region so that we could, again, fill that vac­u­um and we do not yield that vac­u­um to a coun­try that is already very much present there.”

The strat­e­gy out­lined in this hear­ing is the one both U.S. offi­cials under both Oba­ma and Trump have pur­sued with respect to the OAS. Almagro’s actions on Venezuela have been backed by mem­bers of Con­gress, both in words and in offi­cial res­o­lu­tions, while the U.S. gov­ern­ment has used Almagro’s lead­er­ship as a way to put pres­sure on Maduro’s gov­ern­ment while remov­ing the taint of West­ern imperialism.

If it’s the U.S. ver­sus Venezuela, that plays into Maduro’s hands,” one senior Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial said in 2016. It has to be led by Latin Amer­i­cans. It can’t be led by us.”

This pol­i­cy has con­tin­ued under Trump, with right-wing gov­ern­ment offi­cials and mem­bers of Con­gress back­ing Almagro’s efforts or using his state­ments to push for remov­ing Maduro. Sen. Mar­co Rubio (R‑Fla.), who in 2019 led the administration’s con­cert­ed effort to foment the over­throw of Maduro, pub­licly threat­ened to cut for­eign aid to Haiti, Domini­can Repub­lic and El Sal­vador if they didn’t vote with Almagro’s attempt to sus­pend Venezuela from the OAS. In Jan­u­ary 2019, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo cit­ed a let­ter writ­ten by Alma­gro about the sit­u­a­tion in Venezuela to urge the Unit­ed Nations to hold a for­mal ses­sion on the cri­sis. It has done so selec­tive­ly, ignor­ing even the mild expres­sions of con­cern” from the OAS over events in Brazil.

This played into what appears to have been long-run­ning antipa­thy between Alma­gro and the Morales gov­ern­ment, which has been at log­ger­heads with the OAS over Venezuela. Morales’ gov­ern­ment, togeth­er with that of Nicaragua, had demand­ed Almagro’s res­ig­na­tion over his 2016 132-page report on Maduro’s rule, and called his 2017 attempt to invoke the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Char­ter a coup d’é­tat inside the OAS. Morales’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the OAS in 2017 called Alma­gro an offi­cial at the ser­vice of the inter­ven­tion­ist poli­cies of the Unit­ed States.”

Once the elec­tion final­ly took place, the OAS’ wide­ly crit­i­cized press release alleg­ing unsub­stan­ti­at­ed clear manip­u­la­tions” was seized upon by media, the Boli­vian right-wing oppo­si­tion and the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to push for Morales’ ouster. Lever­ag­ing the legit­i­ma­cy of the OAS, the claim that Morales was a dic­ta­tor who had stolen the elec­tion was trans­formed into an estab­lished fact, with the OAS press release and, even­tu­al­ly, its report cit­ed as evidence.

The OAS — just as it had with Brazil — has been curi­ous­ly mut­ed about events in Bolivia since Morales’ ouster. The orga­ni­za­tion put out a sin­gle, 101-word state­ment on Novem­ber 11, the day after, reject­ing any uncon­sti­tu­tion­al res­o­lu­tion of the sit­u­a­tion.” It called for peace and respect for the Rule of Law,” request­ed an urgent meet­ing of the Pluri­na­tion­al Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly of Bolivia for a new elec­tion, and stressed the impor­tance of con­tin­u­ing to inves­ti­gate Morales’ alleged crimes relat­ed to the elec­toral process.” As Bolivia’s new, sup­pos­ed­ly inter­im gov­ern­ment vio­lent­ly repressed and killed indige­nous pro­test­ers, and its new com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor threat­ened to pros­e­cute reporters involved in sedi­tion,” Alma­gro issued yet anoth­er state­ment demand­ing Cuba stop repress­ing” its peo­ple, while relay­ing he had met with Bolivia’s new right-wing pres­i­dent. In an inter­view about the cri­sis on Novem­ber 16, Alma­gro took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to blame Morales for seek­ing a fourth term, some­thing he has pre­vi­ous­ly backed.

Under Alma­gro, the OAS has nei­ther been a neu­tral arbiter nor con­sis­tent voice for democ­ra­cy and human rights. Rather, it has aligned itself with the U.S. gov­ern­ment, includ­ing once the U.S. fell under a racist, far-right admin­is­tra­tion. And Alma­gro has been selec­tive­ly bull­ish in his sup­posed pro-democ­ra­cy efforts — in the direc­tion of replac­ing the rem­nants of Latin America’s Pink Tide with right-wing forces more friend­ly to West­ern busi­ness inter­ests. With Alma­gro look­ing to head the OAS until at least 2025, Venezuela and Bolivia may only be the beginning.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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