OAS: Getting Respect at Last

October 07, 1991

Why the OAS? Why now? For 101 years the Organization of American States has been a tunnel of winds, steeped in rhetoric and pretension, incapable of action, its stately building just a hop and a skip from the White House where it awaited the bidding of a succession of U.S. presidents.

Yet the coup last week against the first democratically elected government in Haiti's history finds the OAS flexing its muscles as a regional organization capable of imposing sanctions against the latest claque of generals attempting to blight hemispheric democracy.

The example set by the United Nations against Iraq is undoubtedly a precedent that has emboldened the OAS. But even that would not have been enough if all 34 members of the organization, as of last June, were not blessed with democratic governments. Taking advantage of this rare circumstance, and in response to an initiative from the five Andean nations, the organization met in Chile and passed "the Santiago Commitment to Democracy and Renewal of the Inter-American System."

This resolution called for a meeting of all foreign ministers in event of a coup against any member state so they could decide on collective action to restore democracy. It was, in part, a concerted rebuff to militarists throughout the Americas who again and again have taken power at the muzzle of a gun. It was also an expression of a Latin desire to stress multinational action (and individual independence) after too many instances throughout history of the United States intervening alone.

Then along came Haiti, presenting almost the perfect test case of the Santiago Resolution. So far, the OAS has responded beautifully. At an emergency session, it voted to send a delegation to Haiti to demand the restoration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- or else. Or else, a barrage of sanctions -- economic boycott, severing of diplomatic relations, even the possible introduction of a multi-national force.

If this stirring display of hemispheric solidarity is successful, the Americas may be freed at last of tinpot generals and on their way to a more secure future. The OAS then will not be the butt of jokes but an institution that gets respect.

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