Being called “trash” by the Venezuelan president was reassuring to Luis Almagro.
The new head of the Organization of American States, Almagro warned the Venezuelan government in November against trying to rig crucial elections the following month by throwing opponents in jail. He called the slaying of an opposition leader an indication that Venezuelan democracy was in serious trouble.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro lashed out at Almagro “for meddling in our affairs.” He referred to the Uruguayan diplomat as a piece of garbage multiple times.
Until then, no world leader, certainly not one from Latin America, had so aggressively and dramatically accused the Venezuelan government of human rights violations. For Almagro, less than a year into his five-year term, Maduro’s reaction was a sign that he was breathing new life into a moribund multilateral organization that many think has lost its heft.
In his few months in office, Almagro has shown himself unafraid to use his bully pulpit to call out corruption or to demand that Cuba be welcomed back into hemispheric discussions. And while he still has his doubters, especially in Miami, the Uruguayan diplomat has largely won praise across the hemisphere for his first 10 months on the job.
“Dr. Almagro has returned the OAS to respectability. His was the one voice who dared denounce the atrocities of Venezuela,” former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe told McClatchy recently.
They didn’t know me.
Luis Almagro, OAS secretary general
The Uruguayan diplomat inherited a troubled 35-member hemispheric organization that has spent its most recent years in the midst of an identity crisis, facing financial woes and plummeting clout.
A new crop of regional groups such as the South American Community of Nations – UNASUR – and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States – CELAC – has formed to compete with it, and to undercut the influence of the United States, which pays roughly 60 percent of the OAS’s $81.5 million annual budget.
Almagro recognized the competition when he took over. He pledged to modernize the the OAS and refocus the group on its core mission of protecting human rights and democracy. He promised not to cower in the face of corruption.
“I’m not interested in being the administrator of the crisis in the OAS, but rather the facilitator of its renewal,” he told members after his election.
The 52-year-old Almagro, who is married and has seven children, was trained as a lawyer. He’s held diplomatic posts in China, Germany and Iran. Most recently, he was Uruguay’s foreign minister, a post from which he worked with the United States on the transfer to his country of Guantánamo detainees and on the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States.
In a nearly hourlong interview at his OAS office near the White House, Almagro addressed his back-and-forth with the Venezuelan government. Maduro’s attack on his character didn’t bother him, he said. It made him feel better. To him, the Venezuelan leader was admitting Almagro was right by reverting to name calling instead of arguing policies.
“I’m always willing to admit when I’m wrong,” Almagro said. “But the language used with me demonstrated I was not wrong. I was at peace.”
There are “no 50 shades of gray” when it comes to human rights and democracy, Almagro likes to say. It’s a black and white issue.
When he heard that some U.S and world leaders were surprised by his aggressive approach to Venezuela, his nose and eyes tightened in frustration. He shook his head.
“They didn’t know me.”
He counts boxer Muhammad Ali as one of his heroes; you have to tip your hat to someone who was willing to sacrifice so much prestige and wealth at the peak of his career to defend his ideals, he said.
Ali also was an excellent tactician in the ring.
“I always think of Ali’s rope-a-dope,” Almagro said, scrunching his body into a defensive crouch before punching the air. “You’re up against the ropes. It’s endure. Endure. Endure. Then, it’s off the ropes. Combination: Left, right. . . . Fight over. It’s a political principle I use often.”
The United States did not initially support Almagro’s candidacy when he announced he was running to lead the OAS. While he was seen as moderate, he came from a leftist government that some thought was not in line with U.S. ideals.
By the time of the election last March, he was the only candidate running after former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein and Peruvian jurist Diego Garcia-Sayan withdrew. A senior State Department official said the U.S. threw its support to Almagro and had “doubled down” since.
The Obama administration knew of his stance on human rights, but they didn’t expect Almagro to come out as strongly as he did.
“Would any of us have predicted an 18-page letter on Venezuela? No,” said the senior State Department official, who could not use his name publicly because of administration policy. “It’s always good to be delightfully surprised in certain ways, perhaps.”
It’s night and day. He’s trying to make the OAS a legitimate organization once again, which was clearly not the case.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
Over the years, there has been considerable debate – especially in Congress – over the OAS role in advancing U.S. priorities. For decades, member states that wanted to maintain close relationships with the hemisphere’s economic superpower helped keep the OAS aligned with U.S. policy.
But the United States has lost clout as members found China’s expansion a driver for economic growth and elected new ideological leaders with anti-U.S. agendas. Some in Congress have sought to withhold U.S. funding.
Many point to the organization’s failures to take a stronger stance on alleged human rights violations. The example most likely to be cited in Washington is the OAS response after widespread protests in Venezuela in the spring of 2014 left dozens dead.
The United States wanted the OAS to denounce what had taken place, but Venezuela leaned on its allies, many of whom received discounted oil from Caracas, and the OAS approved a tepid declaration that rejected the violence but offered “full support” to Maduro’s attempts at dialogue with his opponents. The United States, Canada and Panama were the only countries to oppose the declaration.
For that reason and others, several U.S. leaders questioned Almagro, whose track record on the left was seen as too cozy with regimes such as Venezuela’s and Iran’s, where he held one of his first diplomatic posts.
Miami’s Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who chairs a powerful foreign affairs subcommittee, opposed Almagro’s selection. She cited his work in Iran and argued that he would continue what she characterized as the OAS’s record on undermining human rights and democracy in Latin America.
Ros-Lehtinen declined to speak with McClatchy about Almagro for this article.
Another Miami Republican, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, had similar concerns about Almagro’s candidacy. He said it was too early to give a clear assessment of Almagro.
But Diaz-Balart said he liked Almagro’s aggressive approach on Venezuela. He called Almagro a major improvement from Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, a former Chilean politician, whose decade-long tenure was marked by financial struggles and the emergence of new competing regional groups
“It’s night and day,” Diaz-Balart said. “He’s trying to make the OAS a legitimate organization once again, which was clearly not the case.”
Not only has the Uruguayan diplomat gone toe-to-toe with Venezuela, he’s confronted a former Guatemalan president about corruption right before he was charged, intervened in Haiti’s election crisis and negotiated an anti-corruption body to tackle Honduras criminal networks within the country’s political and judicial systems.
But it was Venezuela that served as the first test for the new leader. Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the OAS, said Almagro had put the Venezuelan government on notice and made it more difficult for the regime to maneuver against the opposition.
“It really woke everyone up in the hemisphere that someone is taking a stand on the issues,” said Noriega, who is a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a research center.
Many in Miami remain concerned about Almagro’s stated efforts to bring Cuba into the OAS. The OAS expelled Cuba from its ranks in 1962.
Diaz-Balart has blasted Cuba for its ongoing human rights problems, which includes more than 8,000 arrests in the year since the Obama administration announced it would restore diplomatic relations with the island.
In 2009, the OAS lifted its 47-year suspension of Cuba – an initial step in restoring its membership – but Diaz-Balart argues that Cuba can’t be admitted because the island nation doesn’t have a democratic government.
Almagro agrees that restoring Cuba to membership will take time.
Still, he said a Cuba inside the OAS would mean a harsher light on its human rights abuses.
“Look, if Cuba has all these problems, it’s a reason for Cuba not to come to the organization,” Almagro said. “Because life will be hard.”