Organization of American States Research Paper

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The Organization of American States (OAS) is the world’s oldest regional organization, dating to 1889–90. The stated primary concerns of the OAS are promoting democracy, defending human rights, multilateral security, and economic and social development. Today the OAS membership comprises the thirty-five independent states of the Americas; another sixty-two states have permanent observer status, as has the European Union.

The Organization of American States (OAS), headquartered in Washington, D.C., is an international organization and successor to the Pan-American Union (PAU), which was founded in 1889–1890 at the First International American Conference and originally called the Commercial Bureau of the American Republics. The conferences sought to deal with commercial and legal issues in the Americas. The OAS is organized into the Office of the Secretary General, the General Assembly, a Permanent Council, and the Inter-American Council for Integral Development. There are specialized organizations and agencies to deal with such varied issues as drug control, telecommunications, human rights, and agriculture.

In the spring of 1948 in Bogota, Colombia, at the Ninth International American Conference, delegates representing twenty-one American countries signed the OAS Charter and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the first international expression of human rights principles. The OAS, which built upon the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, reflected the onset of the Cold War, which remained the United States of America’s preoccupation for more than a quarter century. That is, the OAS was part of a broad U.S. effort, along with the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO, all in Europe, to organize friendly countries to work together, to better the lives of their respective peoples, and to resist the Soviet Union and international Communism. The transition from PAU to OAS went smoothly, and the PAU director general, Alberto Lleras Camargo, became the first secretary general of the OAS. The non-signers were mostly British dominions and British crown colonies in the Americas still tied to the British Commonwealth. In subsequent years, fifteen countries have joined the original twenty-one signatories, the last being Guyana in 1991.

The OAS has clear goals, including working with the United Nations to promote hemispheric peace, supporting economic development, encouraging cultural and social interactions, and protecting the sovereignty and independence of American states. Article 1 of the Charter states that aims of the Organization and its members is “to achieve an order of peace and justice, to promote their solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence.” Article 2 outlines eight essential purposes:

a) to strengthen the peace and security of the continent;

b) to promote and consolidate representative democracy, with due respect for the principle of nonintervention;

c) to prevent possible causes of difficulties and to ensure the pacific settlement of disputes that may arise among the Member States;

d) to provide for common action on the part of those States in the event of aggression;

e) to seek the solution of political, juridical, and economic problems that may arise among them;

f) to promote, by cooperative action, their economic, social, and cultural development;

g) to eradicate extreme poverty, which constitutes an obstacle to the full democratic development of the peoples of the hemisphere; and

h) to achieve an effective limitation of conventional weapons that will make it possible to devote the largest amount of resources to the economic and social development of the Member States.

There certainly have been tensions and differences in the organization and among member states, reflecting in part differences between the United States, caught up in Cold War bipolarization, and Latin American nations, who feared American power and interference. Nevertheless, the OAS has enjoyed some success in maintaining peace in the Americas. For example, it helped end border fighting between Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 1948–1949 and 1955 and resolve the 1969 “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador.

But there have been challenges as well. In 1959, Fidel Castro led a movement that overthrew the corrupt regime of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Three years later, after Castro announced he was a Marxist-Leninist, the United States moved to have Cuba expelled from the OAS on charges of subversion, and in 1964 the OAS imposed a trade boycott. But by the 1990s, virtually every OAS member state save for the United States had restored diplomatic relations and resumed trade with Cuba. And now in the twenty-first century even the U.S. is looking to soften its stance towards Cuba. On 3 June 2009, the OAS resolved to repeal a 1962 Resolution excluding Cuba from the workings of the Organization. More recently, on 5 July 2009, the Organization unanimously invoked Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to suspend Honduras following the 28 June coup d’etat that overthrew President Jose Manuel Zelaya.

For the United States, the Monroe Doctrine and the Cold War challenge from the Soviet Union mattered as much as the sovereignty of nations in Central America and the Caribbean. The OAS did approve United States intervention in Santo Domingo in 1965, but opposed U.S. action in Nicaragua in 1979, since OAS delegates concluded that there was little threat of Soviet intervention developing from the Sandinista regime that overthrew Anastasio Somoza in that country, a view at odds with that of the U.S. government.

For a brief period, the United States seemed committed to active involvement in the Americas. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy pledged U.S. aid to help promote Latin American economic development, land reform, and social development. He promised billions of dollars to assist the efforts of Latin American governments. But, as the United States became preoccupied with the war in Vietnam, the U.S. government reduced commitments to the program, and the OAS disbanded its committee to implement the alliance in 1973.

The influence of the Organization of American States began to decline with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the attendant end of the Cold War, as well as the involvement of major international agencies in Latin America. For the United States, matters in Latin America seemingly mattered less than peace in the Middle East, relations with the People’s Republic of China, helping Eastern Europe negotiate its post-Soviet future, and tensions on the Indian subcontinent. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank began to play increasingly important roles in assisting the economies and governments of many of the countries of the Caribbean and Central and South America. The end of the Cold War has helped bring about a revitalization of the OAS, but future prospects hinge on dealing adequately with the inequality of power between the United States and the Latin American members, especially given concerns for democracy, human rights, security, and trade and economic prosperity.


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