WASHINGTON -- The Organization of American States, half a century older than the United Nations but laboring in obscurity for most of its life, could achieve new prominence in the post-Cold War era by intervening more aggressively to resolve regional conflicts.
Emboldened by the vigorous OAS response to the military overthrow of Haiti's first democratically elected government last September, Canada is now pushing for a wider charter to empower the 35-nation organization to act aggressively to resolve internal as well as interstate crises.
The new spirit brought the Permanent Council of the organization together immediately after the attempted coup against Venezuela's President Carlos Andres Perez on Feb. 4.
Unanimously condemning the "criminal attempt" on Mr. Perez's life, the council reaffirmed its support for democracy and declared that "there is no longer any room in the hemisphere for regimes based on force." Where a generation ago Latin leaders would have kept silent until the outcome of the coup was clear, virtually every chief of state spoke out in support of Mr. Perez while the military uprising was still in progress.
In the wake of the Haitian coup, Costa Rica, an OAS member with impeccable democratic credentials, has even suggested that troops be used to restore Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power if the military-backed regime continues to cling to power.
Such proposals were long considered taboo by most OAS members, mindful of the checkered history of U.S. intervention in the region and bound by the traditional philosophy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring nations. OAS veterans express doubt that even now the organization would ever call for a military expedition to restore democracy in Haiti.
But even the suggestion marks a change for the Washington-based inter-American organization that traces it origins to the 1890s.
Canada's role as a leading catalyst for change is ironic. Ottawa long stayed out of the OAS largely because of misgivings about America's "big brother" image -- finally joining only in 1990. Theoretically, that brought all nations of the hemisphere into membership, although Cuba has not actively participated in the OAS since Fidel Castro's Communist regime was suspended -- but not expelled -- in 1962.
In an interview, Canadian Ambassador Jean-Paul Hubert carefully sought to separate Ottawa's proposals to broaden the OAS charter from any potential military entanglements in the near term. But he acknowledged that interest within the organization has risen as the Haitian deadlock has deepened.
"There is a growing recognition that security should no longer be defined in strictly traditional military terms," the Canadian government said in a statement accompanying its proposal last November. "The security equation is in fact far more complex, involving such factors as economic underdevelopment, overpopulation, migrant populations and refugees, trade disputes, environmental degradation, political oppression, human-rights abuses, terrorism and the illicit trade in drugs."
While that could pass for a description of Haiti's ailments, as well as those of many of its Caribbean neighbors, the Canadian proposal emphasizes that the multiple threats demand cooperative solutions. No nation can be secure, it said, at the expense of, or in isolation from, others, and cooperative security must rest on dialogue, negotiation and compromise.
"Obviously, military confidence will also continue to play a major role in a cooperative security system," the statement said. "But military confidence must be built through the same systematic approach, beginning with open dialogue."
The Canadian plan calls for establishing a new OAS panel called the Committee on Cooperative Security. A subsidiary group on hemispheric security would work to develop "modest confidence-building measures" and conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms. A second group would combat proliferation of nuclear and conventional weapons in the Americas.
The Inter-American Defense Board, an OAS unit that until now has concentrated on improving the training of members' armed services, is seen by some as a logical instrument to coordinate OAS peacekeeping forces if the organization chooses to make them available.
Only twice before has the OAS supplied peacekeepers to intervene in internal disputes, most recently in the disarming of Contra forces in Nicaragua after the election defeat of the former Sandinista government.
The first incident was more controversial: In April 1965, President Johnson ordered U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic to suppress an attempted coup and then pressured five Latin states to add token forces in order to give the operation the appearance of OAS backing. The Dominican intervention was not formally endorsed by the hemispheric organization, however -- an action that would have required approval of its Council of Foreign Ministers.
The ministerial council, which ordered the Haitian embargo, can take action on a simple majority vote except in cases involving the expenditure of money, where a two-thirds majority is required.
No country has veto power over OAS decisions, but neither are those decisions legally binding on the organization's members. The United States, for example, eased its sanctions against Haiti earlier this month over the objections of other OAS members.
After the earlier, unanimous condemnation of the Haitian coup within the OAS, frustration has mounted at the failure of efforts to restore Mr. Aristide to power.
Costa Rican Ambassador Gonzalo Facio broached the possibility of military intervention during a recent debate on the Haitian issue. Mr. Facio said he would advocate such action only as a "last resort" and would bar U.S. troops from any such force, but his suggestion startled those who know Costa Rica as the first Latin American nation to abolish its military establishment.