US anti-abortion groups target Trump ally at Organization of American States

Christian Right movements that claim to represent Trump supporters are lobbying the administration for ‘leadership change’ at the regional body Español

Diana Cariboni
Diana Cariboni
29 November 2019, 12.01am
US Vice President Mike Pence and OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in Washington, DC, 2019
Flickr/Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved

A coalition of US anti-abortion and Christian conservative groups have targeted the re-election of a Uruguayan diplomat, Luis Almagro, as the leader of the Organization of American States (OAS) – despite Almagro’s track record as a crucial ally of the Trump administration against Venezuela.

Almagro, whose current term expires in May 2020, said on Twitter last year that he intended to run for re-election after receiving endorsements from US and allied countries. His current tenure as OAS chief has been marked by public confrontations with the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba.

Last year, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that Almagro “joined President Trump in holding out the threat of a military intervention in Venezuela to restore democracy”. But his perceived positions on other issues have angered some of Trump’s key supporters in the US.

In October, 27 Christian conservative and anti-abortion groups wrote a letter to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, asking him to withdraw US support for Almagro’s second term, claiming that he “has routinely used his position as secretary general to advocate for abortion”.

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These groups “represent American citizens that voted for President Trump and favour his foreign policy against a global right to abortion,” the coalition’s spokesperson Alfonso Aguilar, told openDemocracy. “We request [that] this policy […] is executed by members of his administration.”

Aguilar, who criticised Almagro for describing himself as a “radical feminist” and for naming a “well-known abortion advocate” to run the Inter-American Commission on Women, said his coalition is having “constructive exchanges with the US administration and the Department of State on this”.

The campaign against Almagro’s second term is not the first time that politically connected, US Christian Right groups have targeted the OAS. Rather, this movement “has been coordinating for decades”, said Gillian Kane at Ipas, an international NGO focused on reproductive health and rights.

It is “bringing together the mainstream, and the extreme wings of the US anti-abortion movement,” she said, but “the average American has likely never heard of the OAS. And if they have, they will be more consumed with [Trump’s] impeachment hearings and the 2020 elections to care.” 

They are bringing together the mainstream, and the extreme wings of the US anti-abortion movement

In March, Aguilar told a US National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference meeting that the Trump administration and its OAS ambassador were considering cutting funds to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), one of two main autonomous bodies at the OAS. 

Six days later, Pompeo announced $210,000 in funding cuts, which he justified “in light of recent evidence of abortion-related advocacy”. His announcement also followed a letter by nine US senators criticising IACHR statements supporting reproductive rights in El Salvador, Chile and Argentina. 

But Susana Chávez, coordinator of the Latin American Consortium Against Unsafe Abortion (CLACAI), said these claims are inaccurate. The OAS has not focused on abortion, she said, while it has adopted 11 resolutions supporting LGBTIQ rights, and has a special rapporteur on access to justice for LGBTIQ people.

In the US, Aguilar is also president and CEO of a conservative NGO called the International Human Rights Group (IHRG) and is a former board member of the Christian Right lobby group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). 

Both of these groups are increasingly well known to those who follow OAS negotiations – though neither joined the coalition letter that Aguilar signed as president of another group, Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. 

IHRG and ADF are among a number of international ultra-conservative groups that have set up lobbying operations at the OAS, including the US-based Human Life International and several of its local branches, Focus on the Family, C-FAM, World Youth Alliance and Spain-based CitizenGo.

Much of their energy has been directed towards the IACHR, whose mandate includes investigating massacres, forced disappearances, violence against women, unfair trials, intimidation of judges and violations of press freedom.

One lawyer, who follows OAS negotiations and spoke to us on condition of anonymity, said ADF led a contingent of 100 conservative activists at the 2013 general assembly in Guatemala, trying unsuccessfully to prevent the adoption of conventions against racism, discrimination and intolerance. 

“ADF coordinates ultra-conservative groups’ legal strategy, providing the language and the arguments to water down sexual and reproductive rights standards and also articulating advocacy and lobbying,” she said.

In 2017, for instance, ADF was among dozens of groups that intervened against a landmark advisory opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In writing and in oral arguments, they opposed the very idea of the regional body advising countries on subjects such as LGBTIQ rights.

Over email, senior counsel for ADF’s international branch Neydy Casillas said: “We believe that no one should be persecuted because of their religion or belief. We advocate at the highest levels including the OAS to protect these basic rights.”

Casillas also accused other, unspecified “foreign-funded lobby groups” of trying “to undermine the national sovereignty of Latin American countries” to advance “a disregard for the right to life and the right to family”. She declined to comment on Almagro’s candidacy for a second term. 

OAS headquarters in Washington, DC, 2019
Chuck Myers / ZUMA Wire. All rights reserved

The next OAS secretary general must be elected by March 2020, with at least 18 votes from the regional body’s 35 member states – which include all Latin American and Caribbean countries, plus the US and Canada, although Cuba does not take part in its negotiations including over OAS leadership.

Almagro was the only candidate for the next secretary general when the US groups sent their letter to Pompeo opposing his second term. 

He has gathered just 14 votes so far, according to Aguilar, the spokesperson for the coalition of US anti-abortion groups. Aguilar claimed that “there are other high-ranking officials in the region considering to run, but they will not come forward while the US keeps voicing its support for him.”

In November, Antigua and Barbuda nominated Ecuadorian former minister and former UN General Assembly president, María Fernanda Espinosa, as a second candidate. This may not be enough to appease ultra-conservatives, however, given her previous statements in support of gender equality. 

Almagro is also in the eye of the storm over his role in Bolivia’s political and electoral crisis – including for his support for Evo Morales’s campaign for a fourth consecutive term as president earlier this year, and Morales’s recent claim that Almagro “also took part” in a coup d’état against him. 

Almagro declined to comment on this article, while Chávez from CLACAI said his public, political confrontations have “created the conditions for a smear and defund campaign by the United States” against the regional human rights system. 

“We think that his bid for re-election could strengthen an opposition that will be largely tapped by anti-rights groups,” she warned.

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