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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


The establishment of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948 was a historic event in the trajectory of inter-American relations. It was also a landmark in designing a concept of hemispheric identity, hitherto a dream of idealist but visionary hemispheric leaders of the nineteenth century. For most of the nineteenth century, the American Republics had pursued that vision of hemispheric identity, primarily through a series of congresses. Between 1826 and 1865 four Spanish American congresses had been held on issues and priorities considered vital to the Hemisphere. The Congresses, in Panama, (1826); Lima, (1847-1848); Santiago de Chile, (1856); and Lima, (1864-65) addressed the questions of peace, security, suppression of slavery, federal union, external threat, and possible joint responses to Spanish and French presence in Santo Domingo and Mexico.

In 1889, the government of the United States of America invited all the independent states of the Hemisphere to participate in the First International American Conference. The Conference created the International Union of American Republics for the collection and distribution of Commercial Information and established the Commercial Office of the American Republics in Washington, D.C., to serve as the Union’s Permanent Secretariat. At the Fourth International American Conference held in Buenos Aires in 1910, the American Republics used the International Union of American Republics as a springboard for the adoption of a convention creating the Pan American Union (PAU).1 Thereafter, for the next thirty-eight years, representatives of Latin American states and the United States of America met periodically to establish common positions of regional interests.

The earlier congresses and the inter-American conferences and special meetings served to develop an evolving regional agenda, which constituted a major force in the identification and development of a hemispheric consciousness within the region. The congresses, conferences, and special meetings of the Pan American Union—informed as they were by developments within the international system of the time, as well as by the need to explore common positions and responses—did not, however, constitute an adequate framework for the consolidation of a hemispheric identity within the context of a broader regional forum. It was not until 1948 at the Ninth International Conference of American States in Bogota, Colombia, when the Organization of American States was established, that certain basic mechanisms were put in place on the basis of which a hemispheric identity could grow, informed by the common needs and aspirations of the region.

The promulgation of the Charter of the Organization of American States in 1948 was also a momentous event for the Hemisphere. Events in the relations among states are never wholly endogenous. They are also inevitably shaped by exogenous developments operating at the global level, as well as those precursor forces, which themselves have determined the characteristics of the international environment. During the latter part of the nineteenth century and during the early decades of the twentieth, as Panamericanism developed its concept as a mechanism for inter-American dialogue and cooperation, in the wider political and economic environment, a consciousness of the benefits of internationalism was beginning to mark the foreign and national policies of European and non-European states. In both Europe and the Americas, a number of circumstances coincided to create conditions for the development of mechanisms of national outreach and regional cooperation.

The chastening political circumstances of the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the aftermath of two world wars, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, provoked within the international community a redefinition of itself in every respect with a new concept of nationhood and national sovereignty. New borders were being drawn to create new states; a new concept of international collaboration was being defined in the face of ever greater threats to international peace; and for the first time the future preservation of humanity became a pressing issue, thus tracing more familiar and humane contours for politics and political ideologies. Circumstances were therefore both cogent and compelling for the development of a vision of a Western Hemisphere united in peace, prosperity, and cooperation— a vision that would carve a hemispheric identity vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Indeed, the promulgation of the Charter of the Organization of American States in 1948, constituted the maturing outgrowth of a progressive hemispheric vision at a time of growing anxieties for the future peace and security of the region as a whole. Article I of the original Charter encapsulates this as an essential purpose of the hemispheric body: “To achieve an order of peace and justice, to promote their (member states’) solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence.”2

It might be said therefore that the establishment of the Organization of American States was essentially the institutionalization of Panamericanism as an autochthonous hemispheric expression of a wider global phenomenon.

Hemispheric solidarity and strengthened collaboration required an overall political framework within which progressive regional interaction could be advanced. For the new organization, democracy was a desirable option though not a particularly practical one within the region at the time. Democracy as a form of government had begun shaping political thought in Latin America before the colonies in that subcontinent rejected colonial domination. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, as well as the practice of British parliamentary democracy, had significant influences on a number of regional leaders at the time. Harris and Alba recalled that the political institutions established throughout Latin America, after the struggle for independence, were, legally speaking, of the democratic type.3 Indeed, the revolution of the United States and the French enlightenment were models and movements that influenced the advent of Latin American independence. Harris and Alba state that when the Spanish colonies proclaimed their independence, the United States had been a nation for thirty-five years with a Constitution and Bill of Rights well known in Latin America... (and that) once independent they, (the Creoles) and later elites, drafted constitutions that were inspired by the institutions and political patterns formerly created by the United States Constitution.4 Harris and Alba further state that French rationalism, supported by the example of the French Revolution, influenced the thinking of several Latin American liberators.5

The introduction of democracy, however, in the convulsive earlier years in the newly independent countries of the region was difficult and problematic. For many decades and well into the twentieth century, it suffered persistent and recurrent reversals with severe and adverse consequences for the political stability and socio-economic development of the region. Militarism, ideology, the church, and traditionalism impacted in a complex matrix of governance, which ensnared and entangled the leaders and people of the region for many decades. The practice of democracy was therefore a slow, arduous, and conflictive process within the region. Yet amidst the political conflicts and contradictions of the region, the eventual securing of democracy as the ideal form of government became the single most important political goal of the region and of national governments. It is not surprising therefore that the nascent organization would in 1948 espouse representative democracy as one of the principles of its Charter: “The solidarity of the American States and the high aims which are sought through it require the political organization of those states on the basis of the effective exercise of representative democracy.”6 This goal of the Charter would still not be achieved for many years.

A hemispheric identity can be forged out of the persistent design and execution of coordinated approaches as well as synchronized responses by member states to those factors, which affect their characteristics and development. Member states will bring to the common agenda their particularities in terms of political, social, economic, and cultural expressions, as well as the aspirations of their peoples for a better life. It is the synergy of these individual components, which eventually constitute an identity particular to its component parts.

For Latin American countries and the United States who were the original parties to the OAS Charter, perceptions of the new Organization would necessarily have differed. Even if their expectations were motivated by the same imperatives for peace, security, and economic advancement, conditions within the Hemisphere were widely disparate. For much of the earlier part of the twentieth century, Latin American states were experiencing a period of transition in their struggles to consolidate political independence in the face of unstable and uncertain economic situations and security questions. A number of factors and circumstances challenged the autonomy and integrity of several states of the region. The institutionalization of the hemispheric body and the promulgation of a charter were therefore most propitious in their explicit recognition of the legal equality of all states of the region. The new organization also served to provide the Latin American states with a legal basis for engagement with a major world power (USA) within its hemisphere, on sensitive and important regional questions. The Charter further served to offer the opportunity for a legally negotiated political framework within which relations between Latin America and the United States might be configured in the new global situation. Most significantly, the new organization, by its charter provision on non-intervention, would serve to safeguard what was certainly the major interest of all Latin American states at that time—the integrity of the state. This is explicitly stated in Article 15 of the Charter:

No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. The foregoing principle prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference or attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its political, economic, and cultural elements.7

This precept constituted the fundamental tenet for the interrelations of Latin American states and their relations with the United States. The basis of this provision must also be seen within the context of the recorded history of United States/Latin American relations. In Civil Strife in Latin America, William Everett Kane argues as follows: “If one had to choose a one-word characterization of United States/Latin American relations since the turn of the century, ‘intervention’ would probably be the choice of the majority of Latin American scholars.”8

The provision served at one and the same time to proscribe that critical interventionist history and, perhaps more poignantly, to reaffirm the legal equality of all states of the region and their collective resolve for mutual respect in sovereignty. This question of mutuality has been one of increasing polemics in the dialectics of the region in its commitment to effective cooperation.

From the macro perspective however, for Latin American countries and the United States, the Organization and its related agencies would constitute a commitment for cooperation toward the promotion of peace, security, democratic government, political, economic, social and cultural development, sound legal processes, and overall hemispheric development. These would constitute the guiding tenets of its mission for the future, and would also constitute the basic underlying philosophy of the wider inter-American system.

In the pursuit of the above stated tenets, the Organization of American States has evolved as the leading actor in inter-American cooperation, and over the past fifty years, it has been praised and chided, courted and criticized, circumvented and revisited by both member states and the general public. This is neither unusual nor unnatural. No human undertaking is ideal and less so when directed and managed by sovereign members. Collective sovereignty management is a relatively new experiment in state relations and, up to the present time, the dimensions of this dynamic have been largely circumscribed. The historic and continuing contradictions and frustrations of the Organization’s posture and actions might therefore constitute attributions of hesitance, circumspection, and unreadiness to outreach. Perceived limitations have accordingly been inherently circumstantial. The practice cannot be disassociated from the practitioners. The Organization of American States is an enterprise of its member states. The course of its operations during its first fifty years is essentially a function of the collective management of their enterprise.


1. Even after the creation of the OAS in 1948, the PAU continued to serve as the Secretariat for the Organization until 1970 when the 1967 Protocol of Buenos Aires entered into force and replaced the PAU with the OAS General Secretariat.

2. Charter of the Organization of American States, Article 1, 1948.

3. Louis K. Harris and Victor Alba. The Political Culture and Behavior of Latin America (Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990) 119.

4. Ibid., p. 41.

5. Ibid., p. 43.

6. Charter of the Organization of American States, Article 5d, 1948.

7.Charter of the Organization of American States, Article 15, 1948.

8. William Everett Kane, Civil Strife in Latin America (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1992) 1.