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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 66
Año: 1999
Autor: Christopher R. Thomas
Título: The Organization of American States in its 50th Year: Overview of a Regional Commitment


I. The Political Dimension

From 1948 to the present time, the international system has been marked by enormous changes, many of which have been sometimes decisive and overwhelming. They have all, however, provided opportunities for review, reflection, and renewal. They have also provided conditions for growth and for development. Organizations, both by definition and purpose, must of necessity engage changes in response to the interests of their members. How has the Organization of American States done this in the execution and pursuit of its regional commitment and mission? The circumstances of the Organization’s evolution are critical to this response.

It is important to note that the Organization of American States came into being when a new post-World War II international political and economic order was being consolidated, when the United States and the Soviet Union were embroiled in an ideological conflict, which was partitioning the world into two major camps. This conflict not only fashioned a different world order coming out of the war, but also saw the United States evolve into a superpower, the American Continent—its zone of influence, and Latin American states, its natural allies. The decades of the 1950s and 1960s were therefore both impactive and intrusive on the regional membership ethos.

Overarching ideological rivalries are not conducive to the securement of peace and security, two of the basic tenets of the new organization, both of which are essential conditions for political and economic development. Economic development can only be effectively undertaken in a climate of peace and security. The dynamics of development did not, however, permit either selectivity or priority of choice. This has been the historic dilemma of the Organization of American States.

The presumed natural alliance with the United States did not serve to insulate the members of the region from external infiltration and ideological jostling. Indeed for many years the region was the arena for direct and indirect ideological warfare and violence. The geopolitical dynamics of these rivalries had the effect of drawing the entire American Continent into the hostilities of the Cold War. In many parts of Latin America, infiltration led to destabilization, internal conflicts, and political instability. Latin America in particular became a prime target for ideological infiltrations. Moreover certain conditions in Latin American society at the time contributed to the spread of leftist and socialist ideologies—widespread dictatorships, depressed economic and social conditions among the majority of the population, as well as growing discontent with the political administrations, and growing revolutionary sentiments in those countries. A notable example of this was the Cuban Revolution (January 1, 1959) and the increasing communist infiltration into the subcontinent that followed that revolution. The resultant crisis of the nineteen sixties challenged the Organization of American States in terms of its role under its Charter at a comparatively early stage in the Organization’s life. The Cuban Revolution thus became a central issue in hemispheric security, given that country’s strategic position as an ally of the Soviet Union.

The Cuban question was not the only security matter that the Organization had to address. Many other security issues, before and after the Cuban question, tested the instrumentality of the hemispheric body and the efficacy of its function in the preservation of peace and security. On balance they revealed certain structural weaknesses which the Organization needed to resolve if it were to evolve into an effective regional actor in hemispheric security. The Cuban question remains unique, however, in many respects. In the uneasy climate of major ideological rivalry, it became an instrument within the immediate purview of superpower confrontation; its proximity to the United States brought into sharp focus the security of the Hemisphere as a whole; and its direct support by the Soviet Union created an unacceptable security disequilibrium within the region.

The decision to suspend the government of Cuba from the Organization, taken during the Eighth Meeting of Consultation of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs held in Uruguay, January 22-23, 1962, was historic and without precedent. By circumstance and treatment, the Cuban question became a landmark of hemispheric action in the evolution of the security awareness and consciousness of the regional membership. Thirty years later the Organization would, through an amendment of its Charter by the Protocol of Washington, December 14, 1992, institutionalize the suspension of a regime in a member state, as an extreme measure in the event of illegal or unconstitutional usurpation of power.

Many political analysts have pointed to the ideological rivalries within the region as a fundamental function of the retardation of a stable and progressive social environment. The intensity of the independence struggle, the militarism which ensued, the role of the church in the political and social function, elitism and traditional oligarchy, the complexity of the consolidation of territorial integrity and individual sovereignty, and their impact on national and regional stability should not, however, be underestimated in understanding the overall development of the region.

The conditions and circumstances through which independence was secured were more spontaneous than prescribed. The nature of the independence struggle ascribed a preeminent role to the military. That role transcended the actual period of struggle and became embroiled in subsequent political leadership. Peter and Susan Calvert, in their work entitled Latin America in the Twentieth Century, wrote:
In the struggle for leadership in the new states, the nineteenth century saw a decisive advantage of military officers over civilians.1
Harris and Alba have observed further that when the colonies became independent there were no political parties. The aspirations of the people were expressed through the military leaders. Thus, military intervention in Latin American politics was established.2 This consequential rather than incidental relationship between the military and the political leadership is sometimes underestimated. In those circumstances democracy as an objective lacked the requisite social environment. In this regard, dictatorships, coups d’etat and civil strifes, as abundant as they were, evidenced a structural void in the early political function. John D. Martz records a total of one hundred and eighty-six constitutions in the twenty republics of Latin America from independence to 1969. Warren Dean, in his publication Latin American Golpes and Economic Fluctuations 1823-1966 has recorded three hundred and fifty extra constitutional assumptions of power between 1823 and 1965. During the period 1948 to 1970 alone, throughout Latin America at least twenty-six governments were either dictatorships or juntas exercising absolute power. While there is no hard and fast sequential pattern between the incidences of coups d’etat, radical constitution reforms and dictatorships, a sufficiently clear co-relation has been generally identified between these elements in the evolution of Latin American politics.

Elitism, traditional oligarchy, and the church, were also factors of great influence in the region’s development. Lipset and Solari in their well-edited publication, Elites in Latin America, have noted that the predominant position of the Catholic Church afforded it a strategic place in Latin American social dynamics and subsequently gave to the new Catholic elites a formative influence on secular change in the wider society. Indeed, in the formative independent period of the New Republics, the Church was an important element in the elitist structure of the region. The force of elitism retarded social transformation, constrained radicalism, and significantly structured the pace and breath of social change. Bradford Burns, in his work Latin America: A Concise and Interpretative History, records the character of the American elites from the colonial period prior to political independence, traces of which persisted well into the twentieth century:
For their part, the American elites, feeling they had more to gain through cooperation with the metropolises, lent their considerable authority to the maintenance of the imperial system. They eyed change with caution if not outright suspicion.3
The traditional position of the Roman Catholic Church by the end of the eighteenth century has been described by Bradford Burns as an institution of omnipotence in the Western Hemisphere:
In the wealth, power, prestige, and monopoly of education, the Roman Catholic Church by the end of the eighteenth century ranked as an omnipotent institution in the Western Hemisphere. Its influence weighed heavily, not only in the social and religious life of the community, but in politics and economics as well.4
This character of the Church continued in many forms well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historical accounts of the church’s function in this process have varied widely, from conservatism to ambivalence to forms of progressivism. What seems to have emerged, however, is that the church, like many other elite groups, had particular interests to conserve and that these interests could not and did not initially favor radical social transformation.

The perceptions of and thrust for independence were basic and generally all pervasive. In the unsettled and somewhat undetermined vastness of the colonial region the struggles for independence were not, however, always susceptible to predetermined established national frontiers. In addition, foreign interests, potential and perceived natural resources as well as uneven and disparate population spread created conditions for suspicion, mistrust, uncertainty, and challenges and rivalries in respect of configuration and determination of national boundaries. Ronald L. Scheman records not less than forty-four contentions and conflicts among the founding nations of the Organization related to boundary disputes between 1948 and 1982. From the early nineteenth century to the last decade of the twentieth century, forty-two conflicts over boundary questions have also been recorded. The situation has persisted into the last decade of the twentieth century with a number of territorial questions still to be resolved. In the present circumstances, however, the new dynamics of the region have engaged these questions from a more mature institutional perspective.

Ideological conflicts do not thrive and prosper in a climate of stability and progress. They nurture on discontent, dissatisfaction, disunity, and deprivation of basic needs and expectations in respect of perceived social entitlements. Where these entitlements are endemically or structurally lacking, a resultant distortion is perceived in the social function of the state; frustration sets in and vulnerabilities in the search for alternative mechanisms abound. From this perspective, political ideology or ideologies become perceived agents of change. In the case of Latin America the social and economic conditions, and in many respects the political climate, created institutional openness to the introduction and localization of ideologies, prescribing social change. This in turn challenged the established order and resulted in much internal disorder, civil strife, and enormous drain on the energies, resources and human capital stock of the region throughout the extent of its independence history. The persistence of these circumstances well into independence prompted U.S. Secretary of State Adlai E. Stevenson to state from his perspective as follows:
Communism per se, I am convinced, is not naturally attractive to the bulk of Latin Americans not even to the many intellectuals who seem most inclined toward it. It is, nevertheless, the magnet that attracts and will continue to draw unhappy people as long as a spokesman of other political philosophies seem capable only of talk, and can point to no action to right wrongs.5
Characteristics of the history of Latin America are therefore as much related to militarism, elite and church influences, difficult and interrupted political development, boundary disputes, territorial contentions, conquests and adjustments, as they are to ideological infiltrations and destabilization. Thus, ideological rivalries would seem to have been, in many respects, the result of rather than the cause of the region’s initially complex political evolution. Indeed boundary disputes have been one of the most contentious question in the consolidation of regional stability.

The experiences of the region’s conflictive political history find expression in the Charter’s peremptory assertion of the inviolability of the state and its special treaty provision for the settlement of disputes. Article 17 of the original Charter states as follows:
The territory of a State is inviolable; it may not be the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or of other measures of force taken by another State, directly or indirectly, on any grounds whatever. No territorial acquisitions or special advantages obtained either by force or by other means of coercion shall be recognized.6
Article 23 of the same Charter further states as follows:
A special Treaty will establish adequate procedures for the pacific settlement of disputes and will determine the appropriate means for their application, so that no dispute between American States shall fail of a definitive settlement within a reasonable period.7
The Treaty on Pacific Settlement (Pact of Bogota) adopted at the Ninth International Conference of the Organization of American States in Bogota, Colombia, (1948) was a direct corollary to Article 23.

Violence and continuous militarism, persistent territorial conflicts, continuous ideological jostling, conflicting social transition and years of civil strife, are antithetical to stability and development. The nascent organization, which came out of this history, was not a superimposed external body commissioned to manage and shape an evolving hemispheric identity. It was, at one and the same time, an association of sovereign states and an aggregate of national governments with tumultuous individual histories, varied and deeply discrete and divided internal constraints, yet committed by a collective independent decision to a corporate regional venture, whose requirements and demands often conflicted quite fundamentally with individual national priorities and circumstances. The stresses and demands of these dichotomous circumstances would, of necessity, have impacted on their joint decision-making and the prescribed role of their enterprise as the guardian of hemispheric security. In the circumstances, progress would be slow and attended by contradictions, indecisions, and setbacks.

The Charter of the Organization prescribed the promotion and consolidation of democracy as the form of government for the region. Yet, during the first thirty years of the Organization’s history, autocratic and dictatorial regimes characterized the political order of many member states, deeply reminiscent of their transition to the introduction of constitutional government. The period from 1948 into the 1960s was therefore one of great trial and stresses for the evolving Organization. Over the decade from 1948 to 1958, fifteen countries in Latin America were under dictatorship or some form of military rule. Only five enjoyed relative democratic rule. Curtis Wilgus, in his description of Latin American dictatorships, identifies certain major peaks over the years 1835, 1865, 1890, 1910 and 1935.8 Martin Needler further records one hundred extra constitutional assumptions of power in the region over the period 1930 to 1965.9 The commitment of the Organization and its membership to the securement of democracy seemed, however, irreversible.

The uneven development of the democratic process and its intermittent interruptions and reversals among the countries of the region, posed a dilemma for the region and individual governments. The nations of Latin America confronted this dilemma in many ways, some more creative than others. The political literature of the region is replete with this question. Its characteristics are didactic and persuasive, condemnatory and confrontational, reproachful and reconciliatory. National governments also engaged the dilemma in pragmatic and progressive forms of policy outreach. One example of this was the introduction of the Betancourt Doctrine promulgated on February 13, 1959 by the Government of Venezuela on the basis of which Venezuela severed relations with governments of the region which came into being by undemocratic means. Eleven years later in 1970, under the presidency of Caldera, the doctrine was set aside since, in the view of the government of the time, it was having the counter effect of isolating Venezuela in the context of increasing undemocratic regimes. Engagement as a mechanism of influence, rather than disengagement, seemed a more practical policy option at the time.

The momentum to constitutional government and democracy was not, however, to be deterred. It is important to note here that this momentum, in spite of continuous reversals and interruptions, had been gathering strength much earlier through the efforts of regional and national leaders. As early as 1854, Argentine folklore literature records a political Gaucho’s satire of the Government of Urquiza which was attempting to promulgate a constitution of ten years in a region that was accustomed to having ten presidents in one day.10 This situation contrasts markedly with the more recent description in Douglas Payne’s policy paper Democracy in the Western Hemisphere into the Next Century. In the preface to that policy paper Joyce Hoebing remarks “the region has taken giant strides toward democratic governance and the achievements should not be minimized. Milestones have been reached: Argentina, for example, has held more democratic elections since the end of military rule than it held in its entire past history.” In 1948, all but three Latin American countries were under some form of dictatorship or military rule. In 1967, at the heads of state/government meeting in Punta del Este, Uruguay, just about half of Latin-American governments constituted dictatorships. Today, thirty-four of the thirty-five member states of the Organization enjoy democratically elected governments and democracy can be said to be the foremost political culture of the region. This is, undoubtedly, the most significant accomplishment of our organization.

The forging of a common democratic culture throughout the Hemisphere has in turn served to develop an increasing spirit of mutual trust and confidence in relations among the members of the Organization. This became both necessary and requisite because of the conflicts to which the Organization had to give effective responses. Democracy accordingly served as a basis for common understandings and values. Through a process of cooperation, particularly in times of crises, the Organization of American States has managed to draw the Hemisphere closer together and cement a spirit of common interest in an increasingly stable, social, political and economic environment as the hallmark of the inter-American identity. The establishment of this common spirit of purpose and resolve has been of invaluable benefit to the membership in the confrontation and engagement of collective action to regional as well as national issues. This in turn would serve the larger regional cause as the Organization deepened its hemispheric mission.

The deliberate but persistent management of the instruments of the Organization has been the fulcrum in the region’s transitioning to a community spirit and to the comparative stable conditions which most of its members share today. Basic to this development has been the steadfast and unswerving adherence of the membership to their combined engagement and the ensuing development of a regional identity. Today, militarism, ideological and territorial contentions have greatly receded, though many problems still remain. The experience from the management of the turbulence of earlier years has served to create, however, a confidence in maturity of the regional membership. Progress has been, of necessity, slow but practically measured. Through the instrumentality of the Organization, real threats and potential crisis situations in many areas have been removed. The results of these developments have led to a radical shift in the security scenario perspective in the construction of conflict resolution mechanisms and in the basic sovereignty perceptions of the membership. This is a very progressive development and one that serves to emphasize the primacy of the Charter in respect of the two other basic instruments of the Organization—The Rio Treaty and the Pact of Bogota. The time might well have come when these two latter instruments might be revisited and refocused as the Organization shapes its new direction in accordance with the modern realities and requirements of the region.

In the securement of democracy in the region, the Organization has been both crucible and catalyst. The democratic realization is as historic as it is autochthonous. The democracies of the region are not, however, operationally uniform and fundamental difficulties are still to be resolved. The parameters of their practice reveal a number of identifiable processes, which must now be honed and structured into operational requisites for fundamentally progressive and established democratic governance. In a recent survey of democracy in the hemisphere, Douglas Payne identified a number of external elements, which continue to militate against the consolidation of democracy. These elements are the disillusionment of the people with the conduct of the democratic process, the lack of the rule of law, compromised judiciaries, systematic corruption, poverty and the increasing pervasiveness of the use of illicit drugs that undermine the social fabric. Payne concludes his studies as follows:
The Preceding survey yields a generally troubling and unsettled political picture. Democracy in most countries remains uncertain. Moreover, its prospects for sinking deeper roots will continue to be inhibited by new external forces that did not exist during previous attempts to democratize and which threaten the survival of even today’s strongest democracies.11
Payne’s conclusion might not be a generally shared perspective. It is timely, however, in its caution and serves to reinforce the view that the consolidation of democracy must, therefore, constitute one of the primary challenges of the Organization in its period of renewal in respect of its mission for the twenty-first century.