The Imperialist Agenda of the Organization of American States (OAS)
After being sanctioned by 25 of its 35 member countries, on November 19, 2021 the government of Nicaragua announced that it was withdrawing from the Organization of American States (OAS). In explaining the decision to leave the OAS, Nicaragua's Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said, "The OAS continues to be an instrument created by the US to project its meddling and hegemonic policy of intervention, of threat and of aggression against the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean."
Both the United States government and the Latin American ruling class subsequently exploited anticommunist paranoia to justify opposition to left-wing movements and governments that challenged capitalism's hegemonic control over Latin America.
Many people are only vaguely if at all aware of the OAS, and if they know anything about it, it is mostly an assumption that it is a type of "United Nations" for the hemisphere. But both in its structure and trajectory nothing could be further from the truth. Whereas the United Nations largely functions along the principles of one country one vote, as its largest financial contributor the United States controls the OAS agenda. The result is that the OAS has always functioned as foreign policy arm of the imperial overreach of the United States government.
The OAS has its roots in a series of U.S.-led meetings. In 1890, United States Secretary of State James G. Blaine organized a meeting of eighteen American republics at the First International Conference of American States in Washington, D.C. A goal, in keeping with the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, was for the United States to exercise diplomatic and military leadership over the hemisphere in a manner that would serve its narrow economic and political interests. The delegates at the 1890 assembly founded the International Union of American Republics, which twenty years later became the Pan American Union and in 1948 the OAS.
The OAS came into being at the Ninth Pan-American Conference in Bogotá, Colombia. This meeting of foreign ministers marked the termination of a brief post World War II "democratic spring" and the heating up of what came to be known as the Cold War. United States Secretary of State George Marshall traveled to Bogotá with the explicit and singular purpose of passing an anticommunist resolution. As soon as the delegates approved the resolution, Marshall left the country, highlighting that was the extent of his interest in "Pan-Americanism."
That resolution, known euphemistically as "The Preservation and Defense of Democracy in America," claimed that the "anti-democratic nature" and "interventionist tendency" of international communism was "incompatible with the concept of American freedom, which rests upon two undeniable postulates: the dignity of man as an individual and the sovereignty of the nation as a state." The newly founded OAS promised to take "urgent measures" to "prevent agents at the service of international communism or of any totalitarian doctrine from seeking to distort the true and the free will of the peoples of this continent."
Both the United States government and the Latin American ruling class subsequently exploited anticommunist paranoia to justify opposition to left-wing movements and governments that challenged capitalism's hegemonic control over Latin America. The OAS remained a central factor in that process, as soon became readily apparent in Guatemala.
In June 1944, a popular uprising removed the popular U.S.-backed dictator Jorge Ubico from power in Guatemala. This opened up a unique ten-year period of progressive reforms that came to be known as the "Guatemalan Spring." The reforms radicalized with the election of Jacobo Arbenz in 1950, and the promulgation of a new agrarian law two years later. Decree 900 redistributed unused land that the Boston-based United Fruit Company owned to impoverished Maya peasants. Both U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother CIA director Allen Dulles had close relations with and vested interests in the banana companies, which led them to oppose Arbenz.
Arbenz's reforms famously led to a CIA-backed military coup that overthrew his government, undid his progressive reforms, and led to decades of bloody military dictatorships. In order to justify the intervention in the internal affairs of another sovereign country, U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower had turned to the OAS. Several months earlier, in March 1954 at the Tenth Inter-American Conference held in Caracas, Venezuela, seventeen countries voted in favor of a United States resolution that condemned international communism. The U.S. government used this resolution as diplomatic cover to justify the overthrow of Arbenz's democratically elected government.
Building on its successes at using the OAS to advance its anticommunist agenda and imposing its imperial agenda on the rest of the hemisphere, the U.S. government attempted to use the Eleventh Inter-American Conference to be held in Quito, Ecuador in 1959 to overthrow the new revolutionary government in Cuba. Already in Caracas, the United States had faced intense opposition from Latin Americans to the imposition of its imperial agenda, and those sentiments only increased. To the chagrin of U.S. policy makers, the planned assembly in Quito was repeatedly delayed and eventually never happened.
Even with its imperial plans disrupted at Quito, the U.S. government continued with its use of the OAS to isolate Cuba. An August 1960 OAS meeting in Costa Rica declared that Cuba's revolutionary government presented a threat to the Americas because of its alleged links with the Soviet Union. On February 4, 1962, the John F. Kennedy administration convinced the OAS to expel Cuba from its membership. Over the course of the next several years, the United States strong-armed most of the other American republics to break diplomatic relations with the Cuban government.
Half a century later in a dramatic decision at a June 2009 meeting in Honduras and over the opposition of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the OAS general assembly lifted Cuba's suspension. The Cuban government responded that it had no interest in rejoining the OAS, which Fidel Castro called a "Trojan horse" for the U.S. imperial agenda. A month later, Clinton backed a military coup that removed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya who had hosted the meeting. On September 11, 2001, the OAS had approved the Inter-American Democratic Charter that pledged non-recognition of coup-led governments, but the United States had little interest in pressuring the new rightwing government in Honduras. They hypocrisy and double-standards that the OAS applied as it advanced U.S. interests were blatantly obvious.
In 2015, the progressive Uruguayan administration of José "Pepe" Mujica nominated their foreign minister Luis Almagro as OAS secretary general. Initially his election appeared to represent a change in the OAS as symbolized by the readmittance of Cuba, but once at head of the organization Almagro took an unexpectedly and unexplainable sharp rightwing turn and became a loyal lackey of U.S. imperial interests. Because of his interventionist comments and attitudes against the leftist Venezuelan government, in 2018 the ruling Broad Front party in Uruguay expelled him from its ranks. Almagro's fellow compatriots actively campaigned against him when he ran successfully for reelection as head of the OAS in 2020. Calls have steadily increased for his resignation.
Among the most objectionable actions of the OAS under Almagro's mandate was support for a military coup in Bolivia. On October 18, 2019, the leftist president Evo Morales narrowly won a hotly contested presidential election, but the OAS claimed that he had done so through fraudulent means. A careful study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) conclusively demonstrated that no statistically significant evidence of fraud existed that would have altered the outcome of the election. Nevertheless, the OAS had emboldened violent right-wing protests and the military. Their pressure forced Morales to resign on November 10, 2019 even though his current term of office had not yet expired and no one had questioned the legitimacy of his presence in that position. With the backing of the U.S. government and the OAS, a minor conservative senator named Jeanine Áñez claimed the role of interim president even though she had no constitutional legitimacy to do so.
Earlier in 2019, the OAS has similarly recognized the claim of another minor conservative congressional representative named Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela. It did so even though that country's president Nicolás Maduro remained firmly in power. As in Bolivia, Almagro claimed that the 2018 elections that Maduro had won were fraudulent, even though he failed to provide any evidence to back up that claim. Instead, together with the U.S. government, he insisted on recognizing Guaidó as president even after any constitutional claims—as tenuous as they were—had evaporated. But that made no difference to those who wished to overthrow a leftwing government by any means necessary.
In 2017, Venezuela had begun a two-year process of withdrawing from the OAS, the same procedure in which Nicaragua is now engaged. Instead of allowing that process to proceed, in January 2019 the OAS refused to recognize Maduro's legitimate government and instead admitted Guaidó's envoy Gustavo Tarre as Venezuela's representative. Guaidó loyally supported U.S. imperial interests in the OAS, including voting against progressive administrations in Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Almagro continued his active campaign against leftist governments in Latin America, including his refusal to recognize Daniel Ortega's victory in the November 7, 2021 election in Nicaragua. The role of the OAS as nothing more than a tool of U.S. imperialism has not changed since its founding as the Pan American Union more than a century ago. Leftists have long denounced the organization as only serving U.S. imperialist aims in conspiring against democratic governance in the region. Given that reality, it should be little surprise that the Nicaraguan government decided that it was time to leave.
An alternative pan-Americanism that runs counter to the interests of the United States as channeled through the OAS has always existed, and in fact predates that organization. Dating back to the movements for Latin American independence in the 1820s, Simón Bolívar proposed the creation of a league of American republics. His dream of a "United States of Latin America" was partially and briefly realized with the establishment of Gran Colombia, but that effort floundered and soon disintegrated into the separate countries of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.
The Bolivarian dream of an independent and unified Latin America that would stand up against the looming presence of United States imperialism never disappeared. More than anyone, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez sought to advance this agenda with initiatives such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) that pledged regional integration on an equitable basis. Similarly, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) provided alternatives to the OAS that promised to advance Latin American interests without overt U.S. imperial intervention.
Marc Becker is a historian of the Latin American left and Professor of History at Truman State University. He is the author of The CIA in Latin America (Duke University Press, 2020) and Contemporary Latin American Revolutions (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).
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