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Hall of infamy: Luis Almagro

Latin America
Credit: Vit Simanek/CTK Photo/Alamy

JOB: Secretary-General of the Organization of American States

REPUTATION: Cat’s paw of Republican Washington

The Organization of American States has undergone many a costume change. For decades regarded as a tool of US foreign policy (funded 60 per cent by the US and headquartered in Washington), during the Cold War the OAS had an impeccable record for supporting the capitalist status quo in Latin America: while General Pinochet’s Chile was welcome, Cuba was barred for years. Fidel Castro referred to the organization as ‘the Yankee ministry of colonies’. With the advent of Latin America’s pink tide, the OAS was subject to greater ideological diversity. But times are changing again.

Enter Luis Almagro. At first glance he seems to have the credentials to even-handedly lead the always-problematic OAS. Despite coming from conservative roots in Uruguay, the lawyer and long-time diplomat served as foreign minister in the well-regarded Left-leaning government of José Mujica. But since scoring the secretary-general post, Almagro has taken the organization in a radical Right direction catering to the Trump administration and such extremist ideologues as Elliot Abrams and Marco Rubio.

It was always going to be a balancing act with plenty of reasons to censure human rights abuses (the supposed OAS mandate) across the political spectrum. But Almagro is pushing a singularly one-sided notion of rights. The Bolivarian government in oil-rich Venezuela was a particularly visible target. Almagro has embraced the conservative opposition there, even threatening military intervention (well outside the OAS remit) to overthrow the Leftist Nicolás Maduro, whom he refers to as a ‘petty tyrant’.

Certainly pink tide governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua and, up until recently, Bolivia, should not be immune from varying degrees of criticism for undemocratic manoeuvring to stay in power. Of these, ironically, Daniel Ortega’s Nicaraguan government escaped the worst of OAS condemnation despite its brutality in suppressing opposition – more than 300 demonstrators killed in the 2018-19 protests against neoliberal pension reform. Almagro mildly called for ‘constructive dialogue for a sustainable solution’. Not surprising, given the OAS’s virtual silence on the ruthless treatment of recent street opposition to pro-market reforms from Bogotá to Quito.

Plainly Almagro has a weakness for investor-friendly neoliberalism and Latin America’s more conservative political elites. His concern for procedural democracy doesn’t stretch to what he considers ‘legitimate’ governments. In Chile hundreds of thousands have protested against the Rightist regime of Sebastián Piñera, calling for an end to the dictatorship-era constitution and the outrageous inequality it has fostered. Chilean police have provided a crushing response. The OAS has expressed only mild concern over ‘excessive’ force (26 dead demonstrators at the time of writing), a far cry from the full-throated denunciations reserved for Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. It has all proved too much for Almagro’s ‘mentor’, former Uruguayan president José Mujica, who issued a very public farewell to him over his hawkish adherence to Republican Washington.

The bread and butter of the OAS is monitoring elections to ascertain fairness. Here Almagro’s behaviour is most dubious, especially his manipulative monitoring of recent Bolivian elections, robbing Evo Morales and the MAS socialists of almost certain victory and aiding and abetting a military-backed far-right coup. There was a pause in the election count (83 per cent of votes already counted) with Morales clearly in the lead. Then came an unconventional OAS press campaign claiming (without much evidence) widespread irregularities in the vote and opening the way for military-backed rightwinger Jeanine Áñez to seize power. Despite agreeing to a fresh round of elections, Morales had to flee the country and dozens of his mostly indigenous supporters were shot down in the streets. He has been barred from running again. If Almagro is re-elected for another five-year OAS term, Bolivia and Venezuela may only be the beginning.

LOW CUNNING: Almagro’s term as Secretary-General is up in spring 2020. He plainly enjoys the power, profile and perks of the job and is looking to ensure re-election. He gained one vote when he visited Ecuador in the midst of popular unrest (accompanied by the usual authoritarian clampdowns) against president Lenín Moreno’s cutbacks and pronounced: ‘Nothing’s happened, there is no repression.’

SENSE OF HUMOUR: The perpetual smile of the reassuring diplomat is combined with ludicrous claims, such as attributing anti-government activism in Ecuador to FARC guerrillas in neighbouring Colombia.

New Internationalist issue 524 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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