By Sir Ronald Sanders
If candidates were to get a prize for making the best case for why they are best suited to be secretary-general of the Organisation of America States (OAS) María Fernanda Espinosa would have easily walked away with it when the three contenders for the post appeared before the Permanent Council of the Organization on February 12.
Showing all the competence, knowledge and experience that comes from holding high ministerial offices and the presidency of the UN General Assembly, Espinosa handled, with remarkable grace and aptitude, difficult interrogations from the representatives of the US and governments supporting the re-election of the incumbent Luis Almagro.
The objective of the interrogations from this group of countries, which included Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia, was to try to paint Espinosa as an ideologue who would act against decisions and declarations of the OAS, engineered by a majority of 18 delegations, against the Maduro and Ortega governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua; and the presidency of Evo Morales of Bolivia which was ended by a coup d’état, however else it is portrayed.
This group of governments strongly support Almagro because, in the abuse of his office, he has been their most enthusiastic standard-bearer against the Maduro and Ortega governments.
So preoccupied is this group of governments with trying to ensure that Almagro remains in position, that they have, so far, refused to recognize that Espinosa is not an ideologue and is, in fact — a realist; a pragmatic leader who fully understands that the success of any organisation depends on its capacity to build consensus among all its stakeholders. Incidentally, the regime in Bolivia is still to hold credible elections to legitimize the government it seized.
Only the deaf, or those who deliberately blocked their ears, would not have heard her say with passion and commitment that she will “strengthen human rights bodies” and “promote an initiative for the universalization of inter-American human rights instruments”. If they were listening, they would also have heard her say that, as secretary-general, she would be more “Secretary” than “General” (a failing of Almagro’s), and that she would carry out the mandate and instructions given to her by ministers.
And, it would only be the malicious — who would deliberately misrepresent Espinosa’s undertakings. Yet, the Brazilian ambassador, in a later public session treating with the candidate for the post of assistant secretary-general, and with Espinosa unable to respond, completely misrepresented her remarks, saying that she had stated she would not be guided by decisions of ministers and the permanent council of the OAS. It took, another woman, Lou-Ann Gilchrist, the ambassador of St Vincent and the Grenadines, with great diplomatic restraint, to point out the Brazilian ambassador’s misrepresentation.
If those who are so desperate to retain Almagro as their attack dog, would acknowledge that it is that posture that has led to the polarisation and ineffectiveness of the OAS, they might see in Espinosa an experienced and capable diplomat who, as she herself has publicly declared, “will not promote personal ideologies or the interest of any group”. It is, precisely because Almagro has been so ready to be partisan that the OAS is now a fractured and weak organisation — recognised not for its achievements but for its contentious divisions.
It was accepted by most delegates at the February 12 presentations that Almagro was the worst performer. He should have been the best. The debate was taking place on his ground — inside the headquarters of the OAS — and on his agenda, the role of the secretary-general which post he has held for nearly five years. Yet, he was clearly not in control of his brief; he answered questions badly; and in some cases, did not know answers that should have come to him easily. Perhaps, this is because he has been a one-item secretary-general, focusing on events in Venezuela to the near exclusion of everything else.
No one could have derived any pleasure from Almagro’s poor performance. As I have written repeatedly, he is a very bright and able man. Somehow, he has lost his way and was hoisted by his own petard. Not least, because he could not give to questioners a valid reason for seeking re-election when, in his first campaign to be elected and for most of his term, he had categorically stated that he would not run again.
The other contender for the OAS stewardship is Hugo de Zela of Peru. On the general view, he achieved second place, after Espinosa, in the effectiveness of his presentation and the content of the answers he gave to questions. His Achilles heel is his central and pivotal role in the creation and operation of the Lima Group; a gathering of a few countries dedicated to regime change in Venezuela.
De Zela’s smooth veneer was dented by the ambassador of Grenada, Yolande Smith, who inquired how he planned to build consensus in the OAS when he was the planter of the seeds of division by creating the Lima Group (not an official or recognised group of the Organisation) that ignored the official regional groups and operated in an exclusive process.
The OAS is at the crossroads. It can continue the business of the last five years, in which case countries will withdraw and the Organization will become an unrepresentative body with no hemispheric legitimacy, or it can choose sound management, transparency and greater effectiveness through the inclusion of all in genuine dialogue that takes account of every view. The latter would not be seeking the lowest common denominator consensus; it would be based on guidance by established rules, principles and international law.
Of the candidates who spoke on February 12, María Fernanda Espinosa offered the best course for every member state to achieve the latter objective — and that was — the general belief.