Web Only / Features » November 21, 2019
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.
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.
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 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 regime.” 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 regime 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.”
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.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of the new book Yesterday's Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, available now from Verso.