America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS

About the author
Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor at Mexico's Colegio de Mexico. Among his books is 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (Grijalbo/ Reforma, 1998).

Latin America is politically painting itself in shades of red, and part of the reason is the relationship between homegrown leftist groups and those in the United States.

A life illustrating this history-in-the-making is that of José Miguel Insulza, the former Chilean foreign secretary who was elected secretary-general of the Organisation of American States in May 2005.

For decades after 1945, the political geometry in Latin America was a simple equation: the right’s interests made it blindly loyal to the anti-communist United States, while the left repudiated Yankee imperialism. This hatred, justified by the history of outrages carried out by the superpower, prevented the Latin American left from trying to understand the US, a country with its own leftist political and social forces that might in other circumstances have been seen as natural allies.

Also by Sergio Aguayo Quezada in openDemocracy:

“Mexican democracy in peril” (April 2005)

In the 1960s and especially the 1970s, the Latin American left had started to break the monopoly that rightwing oligarchies and dictators had maintained with Washington, and itself established alliances with their counterparts in the US.

One of the most prominent arenas for such cooperation was Chile, whose democratic “road to socialism” triggered by the election of Salvador Allende as president in June 1970 generated passionate enthusiasm – and hostility – across the Americas.

The Chilean road came to an abrupt halt with the coup d'état of 11 September 1973, led by the army general Augusto Pinochet and orchestrated with leading figures in the Richard Nixon administration in Washington, most prominently secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Both men armed themselves with the doctrine of “national security” to justify military rule and state repression – whose repercussions are still felt in Latin America.

None of this is a secret any longer. But a neglected factor in the Chilean saga is that the US left played a valuable role after the Santiago coup. Apart from many individual and collaborative efforts of solidarity, two institutional initiatives are worthy of mention.

First, the Chilean tragedy gave birth to the Washington Office on Latin America (Wola), which still lobbies for human rights in Latin America. Second, the Ford Foundation developed programmes to assist and find employment for victims of the Chilean coup, including exiled, persecuted and impoverished intellectuals.

José Miguel Insulza was one of them. He found refuge in Mexico, where he designed a programme to study the United States. It was founded on the principle that every Latin American committed to change should understand how the United States operates, and thus fused academic and activist principles.

This evolving new relationship angered and worried the Latin American right, empowered by Washington’s complicity in the brutal intergovernmental programme of assassination, cross-border transfers of dissidents, and systematic torture known as “Operation Condor”. The scale and ambition of this campaign reached Washington itself in a brazen act of terrorism in September 1976, when assassins working for the Chilean secret police (Dina) planted a car-bomb that killed Salvador Allende’s foreign minister, Orlando Letelier.

Letelier had been an effective anti-Pinochet lobbyist in Washington, based at the Institute of Political Studies (IPS). In a symbol of the social alliances that were being woven in the hemisphere, the bomb also took the life of Letelier’s IPS colleague, 25-year-old American citizen Ronni Moffitt. (Each year since then, the IPS has given a Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award to a Latin American or United States citizen who nobly defends progressive causes in the hemisphere).

Despite such violence and intimidation, the relationship between the Latin American and United States left continued to expand. They became even more evident in the 1980s, during the central American wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. An international solidarity network with strong support in the US helped contain the full aggressive ambition of Ronald Reagan’s “new right” in the isthmus. José Miguel Insulza was one of the most active intellectual opponents of the Reaganite political agenda in this period.

These savage “small wars” produced a mountain of corpses and social devastation, but they also marked a key period of transition for Latin America’s “new left”: it had moved beyond denouncing Yankee imperialism to demanding a say in the superpower’s decisions.

By the end of the 1980s, Chileans who had found refuge in the United States thanks to liberal efforts formed the intellectual core of the Commando del No campaign that organised to defeat Pinochet in the October 1988 referendum. US financial support helped them to win. A cycle had been closed, and a new one opened.

New OAS, new era

Insulza achieved his position as head of the OAS by defeating Washington’s favoured candidate, Mexico’s foreign minister Luis Ernesto Derbez. The Chilean’s inaugural speech was striking in its emphasis on plurality, diversity, human rights and security; it also condemned poverty and proposed that the "benefits of political citizenship (be extended) to social and cultural citizenship”. In light of Insulza’s personal biography, this text – more conceptual than programmatic – deserves to be taken seriously as a declaration of intent.

Insulza takes control of the Organisation of American States at a critical period in its history. It is an organisation whose most solid tradition is its irrelevance. If that is to change, Insulza must make sure that governments and foreign ministries throughout the hemisphere – including the White House and the US state department – take it seriously.

The initial test of Insulza’s success will be threefold. First, he must try to demolish the stereotype that depicts the OAS as a "club of governments" by convincing the United States and Latin America to grant the OAS the benefit of the doubt that it can act firmly and independently.

Second, he will face the huge challenge of redefining the OAS so that it can become a bridge between an increasingly radical Latin America and a United States suffocating in conservatism.

The most thorny and delicate aspect of this challenge is Cuba: can Insulza lead the OAS both to condemn Fidel Castro’s human-rights violations and fight the absurd and criminal US economic blockade against the island?

Third, Insulza must show a strategic grasp of an era where, as a result of the failure of the "structural adjustment” policies imposed from Washington (including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) in Latin America over the last two decades, the left in the region has been sweeping its way to power.

openDemocracy writers assess Latin America’s whirlwind year:

Guy Hedgecoe, “Losing Ecuador” (April 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, Nèstor Kirchner’s Argentina: a journey from hell” (May 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “A big mess in Brazil” (June 2005)

John Crabtree, “Bolivia’s retreat from civil war” (June 2005)

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Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile and Uruguay already have governments of the left or centre-left; Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador may soon join them; and a geopolitically vital Mexico may become part of this new wave in 2006. All these countries are experimenting with new forms of economic and social organisation, both domestically and in their relationship to the outside world.

The policies of the 1950s-80s, when Washington decreed and supported the military coups against legally-installed leftist regimes or the threat of such regimes (Guatemala, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Nicaragua, as well as Chile), may not be available to Washington thirty years later, but – as the attempted coup of April 2002 in Venezuela, military support to Colombia, and the “electronic war” over Telesur indicates – it is still determined to combat radical tendencies in Latin America. Can José Miguel Insulza chart a course for the OAS that allows it to play a positive role in such disputes?

What kind of partnership?

It is certainly possible that the OAS’s irrelevance will continue. But Insulza does appear ready to change that and launch the institution into a new era of influence. After all, one of his lifelong objectives has been to bridge the gap between the left in Latin America and the United States and, simultaneously, to force conservatives in both regions to recognise the legitimacy of the left’s assumption of power.

The biggest transformations occur in the streets of Latin America and in the minds of its citizens. But a crucial lesson of history is to take into account what happens in Washington. This is a lesson that José Miguel Insulza has learned well and plans to implement as he presides over an international organisation which for far too long has been merely a tool of the hemispheric superpower.