Thu | Apr 2, 2020

Editorial | Almagro couldn’t have been kept on at a worse time

Published:Tuesday | March 24, 2020 | 12:28 AM

FACED WITH a major global peril, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean missed an opportunity to strengthen their capacity to create a common front against this and other crises. They re-elected Luis Almagro as secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Many of the 23 countries whose envoys last week cast ballots in favour of Mr Almagro, including, we suspect, Jamaica, know that he wasn’t a good, or even the better, choice. They facilitated the United States and the muscular diplomacy of Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state.

This newspaper has nothing personal against the former Uruguayan politician, who may have once been a good and credible diplomat. Except that his leadership of the OAS over the last five years has been decidedly single-dimensional and monochromatic. His focus has, almost exclusively, been the political disputes in Venezuela, not as the even-handed executive of a hemispheric institution, but more like a protagonist in, and key ideologue of, one of the sides in the quarrel. He has long, even before the disputed elections two years ago, made no secret that he questioned the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s government. He has entertained the prospect of removing Mr Maduro with foreign military intervention.

Indeed, even Jamaica’s Government, whose policy on Venezuela is aligned to that of the United States, had cause, through its foreign minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, to complain that Mr Almagro’s “utterances have not been helpful in achieving a peaceful solution to the current (Venezuelan) crisis”.

Even after that, the Caribbean Community members of the OAS, Jamaica among them, felt compelled to remind Mr Almagro, after he had unilaterally confirmed the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, with the right to occupy that country’s seat at the OAS, that it was an organisation “of sovereign states”, for which he couldn’t speak on such a matter without direction. He was, therefore, guilty of overreach.

Mr Almagro’s fixation on Venezuela, and latterly, other anti-left causes, meant that little else, such as the hemisphere’s economic problems and the issue of climate change, which are profoundly important to the mainly small developing islands of the Caribbean, received attention at the OAS.

There are times when it is obvious that solving problems with new thinking and new leadership, and a different kind of engagement, in relation to Venezuela and the OAS, meant that Luis Almagro was long past being the man for the job, except as an echo chamber for the Lima Group.

BETTER BET

A better bet for the post would have been the Ecuadorian diplomat and Antigua and Barbuda nominee, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, who received 10 votes.

However, the United States wanted Mr Almagro, for whom, along with Singapore’s Daren Tang, rather than China’s Wang Bingyan as head of the World Intellectual Property Organization, Mr Pompeo lobbied robustly with hemispheric governments, including on a stop to Jamaica. Hugo De Zela, the Peruvian, who was expected to take votes from Mr Almagro, making his path to victory more difficult, withdrew late from the contest.

Anything, they say, is possible, so we hope, but have little faith that Mr Almagro can course-correct, which lays bare the flaw of his incumbency. It is not only about Venezuela, or the other matter to which he has failed to pay sufficient attention, or provide quality leadership, during his five years as head of the OAS. Mr Almagro begins his new term at a time of profound global crisis. There is the COVID-19 pandemic that has so far infected more than 300,000 people worldwide and killed nearly/more than 15,000. The number of infections and deaths will rise many multiples, and this hemisphere is in the line of sight of the virus. Moreover, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the global economy, including those of the Caribbean, which are without the resilience to easily recover from its pummelling.

In times like these leadership matters, at the domestic, regional, and hemispheric levels. In this regard, Mr Almagro would be expected to be at the forefront of the public health and economic rescue initiatives for Latin America and the Caribbean. He may try. He, however, will lack a critical quality – the ability to inspire the trust of all his constituents.