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WHAT exactly is the Organisation of American States (OAS) for?

From The Economist

Jun 9th 2005 | WHAT exactly is the Organisation of American States (OAS) for? For much of its 57-year history, the answer has been: not much. It has a fine mansion in Washington, DC, and a famously lavish pension scheme, both mainly paid for by the United States. In return, the 34-member organisation did Washington's bidding in its “backyard”.

In recent years, as democracy has spread across Latin America, the OAS has stirred. It has helped to protect democratic rule in several countries. In 2001, it adopted a Democratic Charter. This committed its members to representative democracy—and to take diplomatic action where this breaks down or is damaged by unconstitutional actions.

Sadly, in some Latin American countries, democracy still needs succour. This week, Bolivia was in chaos: the president resigned, for the third and seemingly final time, driven out by radical protesters who want the country's gas industry nationalise. They are supported—and, claims the United States, financed—by Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's elected president, who has eroded pluralism and civil rights at home. In April, Ecuador's president was booted out by its Congress, and replaced by his vice-president. In Haiti a United Nations mission is trying to organise an election amid gang warfare.

But the OAS can step in only when asked by the country concerned. To bolster democracy, George Bush's administration wants to give some teeth to the Democratic Charter. At a meeting this week in Florida addressed by Mr Bush, American diplomats urged the OAS's foreign ministers to set up a permanent committee to police the practice of democracy in the region partly by hearing testimony from civic groups.

But Latin America no longer automatically follows Washington's lead, in part because democracy has brought centre-left governments to power in some places. That was reflected in the recent election as the OAS's secretary-general of José Miguel Insulza, a capable Chilean who was not Mr Bush's first choice. The foreign ministers duly diluted the American initiative, vaguely instructing Mr Insulza to “make proposals”.

That reaction was predictable. Their past experience of invasions and coups sponsored by the United States makes Latin Americans suspicious of anything that smacks of meddling in their affairs. Indeed, they signed up to the Democratic Charter only because its strictures are sugar-coated with “due respect for the principle of non-intervention”. They also suspect that the new plan is a fig-leaf for an American plot to oust Mr Chávez, a stridently anti-American populist.

But it is Latin America, not the United States, which has most to gain by trying to protect its democracy. South America's leftish leaders have been far too ready to pay court to Mr Chávez. They see that as an easy way to please their own political base while doing good business; in return for the bearhugs, Mr Chávez offers cheap oil and other deals.

Accepting these is short-sighted. Complaisance in the face of even elected autocracies of any political stripe endangers the shared democracy and closer integration which Latin America's leaders claim to champion. There is a large middle ground of diplomatic measures between passivity and forced regime change. Whether the OAS—rather than the newly-proclaimed South American Community—is the right body for such diplomacy is debatable. But the Democratic Charter is there. It is Latin America's responsibility, and in its own interest, to make it worth the paper it is written on.

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