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New OAS chief's top priority: defending democracy
Andrés Oppenheimer, The Miami Herald
May 6th.


José Miguel Insulza, the former Chilean interior minister who was elected head of the 34-country Organization of American States, says he will have a top priority once he takes office on May 25 -- finding ways to prevent the breakdown of democratic rule in the region.

''We must set new mechanisms that allow us to be more active in promoting and maintaining democracy,'' the 61-year-old Insulza told me in a telephone interview from Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday, in apparent reference to the growing threats to democracy in countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Insulza, a pro-globalization socialist who for the past 11 years has served successively as Chile's foreign minister, Cabinet chief and interior minister, says one of his priorities will be creating an early warning system to anticipate military or civilian coups.

''We cannot simply keep arriving late when there is a crisis. We must find ways to find out about problems before they happen, so that we can act before the crises take place,'' he said.
Over the past two decades, 14 Latin American and Caribbean presidents have been forced out of office in dubious circumstances. And U.S. officials have growing doubts whether some current presidents -- such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez -- are respecting the rule of law.

Insulza, whose candidacy was first backed by Brazil and Venezuela and was only supported at the last minute by the Bush administration, cited the case of Ecuador, where former President Lucio Gutiérrez was ousted by a legislative coup last month. While Gutiérrez and his loyalists in Congress had set off a political crisis by arbitrarily firing most Supreme Court judges nearly five months ago, the OAS did not send a mission to Ecuador until after Gutiérrez was toppled.

''Probably, with a reasonable mechanism, without intervention, but through mediation, we could have resolved this problem in December,'' Insulza said.

OK, but what kind of mechanism do you envision? I asked. The OAS' Democratic Charter, which calls for collective diplomatic action whenever there is an interruption of democratic rule, is full of loopholes. Many countries disagree, for instance, on whether firing Supreme Court justices constitutes an ''interruption'' of democracy.

Some, like former President Jimmy Carter, are proposing that OAS member governments specify ''minimal indicators of unacceptable violations'' of the Democratic Charter, so as to avoid endless debates over whether to apply the charter. Do you agree with that?, I asked.

''Yes, I'm very much in agreement with that,'' Insulza said. ``We must find a mechanism to do it. Perhaps it should be a task force to draft those specifications.''

And what about creating a Democracy Commission made up of prominent scholars that would provide periodic reports on the state of democracy in all countries, which is another Carter proposal? I asked. That's how the OAS Human Rights Commission works, and it's by far the most respected branch -- if not the only one -- in the OAS, I added.

Insulza said he doesn't support a semi-autonomous group of experts determining which countries are behaving democratically. Rather, he said it should be a ``committee within the Permanent Council.''

Asked about Venezuela Information Minister Andrés Izarra's claim that Insulza will ''honor his commitments to Venezuela,'' Insulza told me that ``I have not made any commitment to any country.''

Will Insulza be able to rescue the OAS from near irrelevance? People who have known him for many years credit him with having helped forge a consensus in Chile's highly polarized society. Insulza's nickname in Chile is ''The Panzer,'' after the German World War II tank, because of his reputation of charging hard in whatever endeavor he takes on.

My conclusion: I would have preferred if Insulza had backed an OAS Democracy Commission modeled after the Human Rights Commission, made up of independent experts. Otherwise, with member country representatives, it will be subject to so many economic and political pressures that it's likely to be ineffective.

But Insulza's overall decision to make the defense of democracy his top priority is the right one, and his democratic credentials are impeccable. Let's hope that the Panzer charges ahead with that agenda at full steam.

Copyright © 2005, Embassy of Chile, Washington, DC and GlobeScope, Inc.