Latin America

The globetrotter hoping to rescue the Organization of American States

Former Uruguayan minister pledges to strengthen democracy and improve human rights

Silvia Ayuso
Incoming OAS secretary general Luis Almagro on Wednesday.
Incoming OAS secretary general Luis Almagro on Wednesday.NICHOLAS KAMM (AFP)

Luis Almagro knows that his new job as secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) will not be an easy one to tackle.

The 51-year-old former Uruguayan foreign minister, who served under President José Mujica, will arrive in Washington in two months to take on the challenging task of trying to breathe new life into an institution that has been brushed aside by its own members over the years.

Latin American diplomats prefer to resolve problems at groups where the United States doesn’t hold membership

When they have problems, Latin American and Caribbean diplomats now prefer to resolve them before other regional groups – such as the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) – where the United States doesn’t hold membership.

Almagro will take over from José Miguel Insulza on May 26, and says he doesn’t plan staying beyond his five-year term as secretary general. He is coming to the OAS with an impressive diplomatic record, having served as foreign minister at a time when Uruguay was capturing international recognition for its liberal policies under Mujica, which included legalizing marijuana, abortion and gay marriage.

With 33 votes cast in his favor and just one abstention, Almagro received broad support on Wednesday from the OAS members. Also elected was Nestor Mendez, the permanent representative of Belize, as assistant secretary general.

The former foreign minister is well aware of the difficulties he will face in Washington. But because he was a key figure in helping organize the OAS’s rival regional groups, Almagro may have better insight into how to integrate these institutions so that they can work together.

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Almagro was part of the team of Unasur foreign ministers that traveled to Caracas last year in an unsuccessful attempt to mediate the crisis between the Venezuelan opposition and President Nicolás Maduro, a crisis that later resulted in the arrests of prominent dissidents.

But it is his proximity to Maduro and his allies that has caused some concern among Almagro’s diplomatic rivals. Some have even called him the “candidate from ALBA,” in reference to the 11-member leftist Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas created by Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Those close to Almagro, however, vehemently deny that he favors the leftist alliance and point to the fact that Venezuela was late in offering its backing to the Uruguayan diplomat, who has pledged to concentrate on human rights and strengthening democracy during his tenure.

“It is our turn to give a boost of realism to the OAS and to do everything in the best way possible, in the areas that nobody can articulate better than this organization: political dialogue with tangible results in key areas of democracy, human rights, security and the integral development of the Americas,” he told members on Wednesday.

Steep challenges have never stopped this lawyer, who is a vegetarian from a nation known for its taste for high-quality beef

Yet his remarks concerning the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) – he called the body “a promotional entity” – have also sounded alarms among some sectors, who believe that the governments in Caracas and Quito may be meddling. Venezuela and Ecuador have long stated that the commission was being influenced by Washington and was getting involved in countries’ internal affairs.

But steep challenges have never stopped this lawyer by profession, who is a vegetarian from a nation known for its taste for high-quality beef, and who claims that he is incapable of “hurting a fly or even stepping on a spider.”

But he will have to step on some toes as he heads up an organization with meek international prestige and which, in the last few years, has been bogged down by bureaucracy and an overwhelming number of cases presented.

The married father of seven children – who were born in five different countries, including Iran and China, former diplomatic posts of his – speaks several languages, including French and a bit of German. He converses with his South African-born wife in English.

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