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|From The Economist print edition
The Organisation of American States
Leading from the south
May 5th 2005 | SANTIAGO
Right man, tough job
THE United States, Winston Churchill noted, can always be relied upon to do the right thingonce it has exhausted all the alternatives. So it proved last week, albeit in a matter of less moment than Churchill had in mind: finding a new secretary-general for the Organisation of American States (OAS). Having tried fruitlessly to secure the election of two other candidates, the Americans finally threw their weight behind José Miguel Insulza, Chile's interior minister. On May 2nd, he was elected with the support of 31 of the OAS's 34 member states.
Mr Insulza is an experienced and pragmatic politician. He was always the best candidate. An opponent of the 1973-90 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, he nonetheless led the efforts as Chile's foreign minister to bring the general home after his arrest in London in 1998. As interior minister in President Ricardo Lagos's government since 2000, he negotiated agreements with the right-wing opposition, including one to abolish authoritarian vestiges in Chile's constitution.
Mr Insulza would have won anyway. But it would have been a narrow and divisive victory over Mexico's foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, with whom he had tied in voting last month. The United States backed Mr Derbez after its original candidate, a former president of El Salvador, failed to gather support. Mr Insulza had the support of South America's centre-left governments, including Brazil's. But he also had the backing of Venezuela's anti-American president, Hugo Chávez. That put the United States off.
The breakthrough came when Mr Derbez agreed to stand down during a visit to Santiago last week by Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state. She met Mr Insulza for the first time. Chilean officials told her that they had made no promises in return for Mr Chávez's backing and his help in gathering support among Caribbean countries, whose economies depend on subsidised Venezuelan oil. According to Heraldo Muńoz, Chile's ambassador to the United Nations, Ms Rice was told that "Chile has a policy on democracy and human rights that it doesn't change for votes."
TheOAS has long been regarded as both the plaything of the United States, which puts up most of the money, and as a convenient place to park Latin America's more intractable problems. But in 2001, its members adopted a charter that obliges them to uphold democracy or risk sanctions. The United States would like to apply this to Mr Chávez, but South America is wary. Mr Insulza may take a robust view of the issue. "Elected governments that do not govern democratically should be held accountable to the OAS," he says.
Some saw the hand of Roger Noriega, America's senior State Department official for Latin America, in the ill-starred attempt to block Mr Insulza. If so, Ms Rice appears to have taken a more strategic view. Mr Insulza is a socialist, but he is a pro-market moderate. He comes from a country which many see as a good advertisement for liberal economic reform, and with which the United States has good relations. And any attempt by the superpower to isolate Mr Chávez is bound to fail unless it has the support of the centre-left governments of Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
Mr Insulza will have other headaches. Bolivia (along with Mexico) abstained and Peru cast a blank vote because their peoples still lament Chilean annexation of part of their territory in a 19th-century war (seearticle). But Mr Insulza's term is sure to be dominated by Venezuela. It will be a help that he cannot be portrayed as a puppet of Washington. That doesn't make a thankless task much easier.