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Interviews

An Interview with Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States

Luis Almagro, formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay between 2010 and 2015, has served as Secretary General of the Organization of American States since May 2015. The Organization of American States is a regional body with 35 member states, headquartered in Washington, D.C., that seeks to promote democracy, peace, and security across the Americas. 

The Politic: When you took office almost four years ago, you promised to pursue “more rights for more people.” How do you evaluate the progress towards this goal that has been made throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to date?

Luis Almagro: It has evolved favorably. Today, the conditions for people’s access rights are better than they were four years ago and definitely better than they were ten or twenty years ago. Our societies today, and our political systems, are experiencing an empowerment of citizens. And citizens today are increasingly relevant when it comes to demanding solutions for the main issues or problems that beset them, whether it’s reporting human rights violations or environmental problems or corruption issues. So our political systems today have been horizontalized very much, and our citizens have less and less of a need for intermediaries when acting and participating in politics, which makes the democratization more intense.

On the other hand, a logic that subsumed the hemisphere for practically a decade, or perhaps more, was eliminated. We pretended that everything was fine when everything was bad. It was as if everything was fine when there were increasingly bad practices within the political systems. There was more cooptation of judicial powers, more blocking of the action of the parliament, more dysfunctionalities in the political system. For example, I believe that the most obvious cases are those of the corruption of Odebrecht and PDVSA, which were happily camped out on the continent, while everyone pretended that everything was fine. That certainty of impunity that Odebrecht and PDVSA had is over.

These are obviously not easy processes; they are processes that have a strong dose of drama and are somehow traumatic for the countries where they have occurred. Those who had very high investiture and exercise of power are now in prison– you can not pretend that this was a natural process.

But, it is a process of health and sanitation of the political system that is very favorable. I think we have made good progress, but there is still a lot to do. These are continuous and permanent processes in which we must always be on top and always be ready to denounce and present the discussion to address the main problems.

The Lima Group of countries, seeking to resolve the crisis in Venezuela, refused to recognize Nicolás Maduro’s new presidential term beginning on January 10. You supported this decision by the Lima Group. Can you expand on this? What’s next for Venezuela in 2019?

It was really a decision that had already been made. The General Assembly, in the last ordinary period of the session of the OAS General Assembly, had already declared the [Venezuelan] elections illegitimate, which declared illegitimate any new period of Maduro’s [presidency] based on that electoral process. I think that when we say that we do not recognize that next electoral period, be it the Lima Group or the General Secretariat itself, we are simply reaffirming what has already been expressed by the resolution of the General Assembly.

What we expect from Venezuela will depend on the Venezuelans. That is, on the courage of the Venezuelans to assume the historical responsibility of facing a dictatorship with the legitimacy of a popular mandate.The Venezuelan National Assembly has a very clearly established popular mandate, and the international community has also presented its mandate regarding the illegitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s new [presidential] term. And what we hope is that this will produce a process of re-democratization in Venezuela and that the internal conditions will be aligned in a way that implies the end of the dictatorship. That is what is necessary at this time. It depends on the courage, and determination with which Venezuelan politicians assume that commitment with their constitution and their history.

Indeed, the political situation in Venezuela has caused a migratory crisis that might soon become the largest in the world, comparable only to that of Syria. Do you think that the region and the international community at large are doing enough to address it?

The international community and the countries of the region are doing a lot. If one simply compares [the Venezuelan migrant crisis] with [migrant crises in] other regions of the world… the European Union received two million Syrian migrants. And that was done through very tough internal processes with many political consequences and a large social impact. And here our countries have assimilated an amount similar or superior to that in a much more natural way, which reveals a vocation of open arms, brotherhood, and Latin American union as has rarely been seen before. Obviously, we have to be careful because many of these countries have already reached the limit of what they could do in this situation.

But the political and humanitarian situation in Venezuela continues to worsen, and therefore the problem continues to multiply. We will have to look for new solutions for the future, such as how to think  about refugee status, how to think about the documentation of these people, and how to think about the services provided by the international community to refugees. With the globalization of the problem, it is not only the countries of the region, and specifically some countries of the region, that have the absolute weight and the greatest burden of this issue. So, I think it’s going to be very important for everyone to contribute globally on this issue.

Would you support the recognition of Venezuelan migrants as refugees under the expanded definition of a refugee under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which includes people fleeing their country because of massive human rights violations or disruptions of public order?

Would attitudes toward these people change throughout the region if this were the case?

What has been done so far for that reason has been done without saying that it was done for that reason. There is clearly a political position throughout practically the entire region that we must continue to receive these Venezuelans because of the massive human rights violations of which they are victims and due to the humanitarian crisis from which their country suffers. No people on the continent are made to live under a dictatorship, and therefore the response has been [formulated] on that basis. Therefore, yes, I definitely support the formalization of [that expanded definition] because that is the material truth that supports the whole argument for why we should receive Venezuelans.

Would you support doing the same for those who left Nicaragua for Costa Rica after the political crisis there or for the migrants who left the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras for the United States last year?

Look, these are two very different cases. The Nicaraguan situation is more similar to the case of Venezuela because of the conditions that the Nicaraguans had to face in recent months, considering the reality of rights deprivation that Nicaraguans have experienced and with the dimension of the political and human rights crisis that the country has faced and I think continues to face. Nicaraguans have been [leaving the country] in smaller numbers though. They have the right to be treated under that umbrella [of refugee status].

The migration of the Northern Triangle towards Mexico and the United States, because many are staying along the road [i.e. many settle in Mexico instead of continuing on to the United States], is different. This is a permanent flow. They were organized in caravans, but it was more or less the same amount and the same people who had emigrated under other conditions.

The caravans had, I think, a point in favor and a point against them. The caravan gave greater security to the migrant during the course of his migration, and therefore gave him greater guarantees that the women were not going to be raped, that they were not going to suffer violence, that they were not going to suffer robberies, and that they were not going to be subjected to the coyotes, the human traffickers, in such a dramatic way.But, there is a point against [the use of caravans]. These people, if they were individually trying to enter the United States, might have had better chances of entering than if they tried to enter as a caravan, which made it practically impossible [for them to enter]. Therefore, they are not assimilable in the same way.

We must work toward solutions for the countries of the Northern Triangle, for better safety conditions, for better working conditions, economic conditions, and study opportunities. I think that’s the logic [we need] because, if not, it’s as if Africa and Europe were stuck together. That is the reality of our continent. There [in Europe], the conditions of migration, without the Mediterranean in the middle, would be much more complicated for some countries. We must take possible solutions into account, because having the first economy in the world, the most developed country in the world, so close to social and economic conditions and violence that completely contrast with that [prosperity], definitely make that migration flow absolutely inevitable.

What options exist to improve conditions in Venezuela? What would you suggest?

The re-democratization of the country. As long as these people govern, there will be no fix. It is impossible. [Maduro’s rule is] an absolutely delegitimized government– delegitimized by its population, delegitimized by its political system, delegitimized from the institutional point of view, delegitimized among the international community. It is a government without options and without the capacity to generate the solutions that its people need.

This government, this dictatorship, this Venezuelan regime, has shown itself to be completely alien to the country’s problems. People die because they cannot get dialysis, and there is no government attempt to solve that. People die because they have other chronic diseases, and there is no official reaction. Children die in hospitals – practically one [child] was dying per day, though I do not know if that number was a couple of months ago – and there is no reaction.

Imagine this in any other of country on the continent. This sort of thing makes governments fall and sparks social protest. This is a completely repressed, oppressed society, on which an induced humanitarian crisis has been leveraged. The only measure this government has to relieve internal pressure is to make people leave and transfer the problem to all the other countries of the region, which makes it practically one of the most immoral governments in history. Almost no dictatorship on the continent has had such a detachment from the social problems of its country, and there have been horrible dictatorships on our continent. But inducing its own population into a humanitarian crisis and still refusing to receive international aid for that humanitarian crisis, and then trying to transfer that pressure outwards… it is like the height of immorality. So. the solution passes through a legitimate and democratic government in Venezuela. Everything else is a palliative. Everything we can do to assist migrants and resolve specific issues, such as education, health, housing, and security… all these are palliatives for a situation generated by a dictatorship on the continent.

In the last days of 2018, you announced the application of the Democratic Charter of the OAS to Nicaragua. What does this imply? In your opinion, is Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega following in the footsteps of Maduro?

He is throwing himself off of the same precipice from which Maduro threw himself. This was something unnecessary for Ortega [to do], but he chose that path and sent himself off that precipice. That is why, according to what Article 20 of the Charter itself says, when an alteration to the constitutional order is contracted by one of the countries or by the General-Secretariat itself, which has to do with respect for guarantees and fundamental freedoms, [and] with how elections are made and the separation of powers, action has to be taken. When we consider all the violations of these constitutional principles by the Ortega government, we definitely have to start the path of applying the Democratic Charter.

The process of implementing the Democratic Charter is not how some people simplify or believe [it to be]. The application of the Charter does not imply the suspension of the country [from the OAS]. If we look at Article 20, there are five steps before that. They have to do with a summoning request, a meeting of the Permanent Council, the collective resolution on the part of the states with respect to the situation in the country in question, the making of the decisions that the countries deem necessary, and the realization of diplomatic procedures and best efforts. And if all that fails, the last point is to call an extraordinary General Assembly to deal with the suspension of the country or another type of solution. So it is how irreversible [the situation in Nicaragua] has become over the last few months that forces us to take this path, hoping that the solution for Nicaragua will be political and diplomatic.

In recent years, there has been much talk about the construction of a wall on the southern border of the United States to restrict the entry of migrants, most of whom come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. What do you think of this policy?

The wall is already there. There are hundreds of miles of wall [on the US-Mexico border]. The idea, unfortunately, is not new. I have to stick to a declaration made by the states here in the Permanent Council, when the construction of the wall began more than 10 years ago [Referring to the Secure Fences Act of 2006], in which it is said that obviously this is not the way to resolve immigration issues. And if we look at history a little, the walls have never stopped migratory flows, nor have they served as a solution for the countries that built them. Therefore, that is our position. A wall that separates the continent, the hemisphere, is not the solution to all the migration problems we talked about during this conversation.

Aside from the crisis areas we’ve discussed, what do you see as likely foci of OAS’ attention over the coming year?

There are recurring themes, so as not to mention countries, because most of the issues are cross-cutting. The main issue on the continent is the issue of migration. Since I have been here in the General-Secretariat of the OAS, we have had something like seven crises linked to migration issues since the beginning of my term. So that is a fundamental issue. Today, thanks to the subject of Venezuela, it is truly the most urgent issue to deal with on the continent.

The second issue, which impacts political systems, which deteriorates and erodes them in democratic terms, is corruption. That is another one of the fundamental issues that we have to deal with.

Another fundamental issue has to do with what we talked about at the beginning, which has to do with our essential postulate, that we are still the most unequal region in the world. That, I think, is definitely what most impacts the lack of democracy in our countries. I would tell you that we have to concentrate on that. We are going to have to thematically focus our people on those three issues, apart from the others and the spontaneous crises that arise every so often.

According to the Latinobarómetro Report of 2018, support for democracy in Latin America fell for the sixth consecutive year and citizen dissatisfaction with the democratic system reached 71%, compared to 51% in 2009. Is distrust of democracy the greatest challenge facing Latin America?

It is not a problem of distrust of democracy. It is a problem of inefficiency. When democracy is missing, people get sick, the demands get stronger, and despair and protest are transformed into something very severe to address this lack of democracy. The cases of Venezuela and Nicaragua are very demonstrative in this regard.

The problem that democracy has on the continent today is that many of our political systems and our political parties, have not managed to fully exit the twentieth century. They continue proposing, as we approach the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the same solutions from the twentieth century. And today, that is very inefficient. It is very inefficient because today people have different expectations for the amount of time in which their problems must be solved and the difficulties they must face.

So, if our institutions are not more efficient when it comes to resolving issues of corruption, environmental issues, economic issues, labor issues, education issues… that will definitely continue to impact levels of confidence in the functioning of the political system, which in practically all parts of the continent is democracy. Our institutions must definitively take a step to update themselves to solve [problems] in real time, which is what shapes public opinion, networks, and the needs of people. Before, a politician in the twentieth century could wait to be judged at end of his term, which is now an absolute impossibility. The politician is judged immediately. Today, he is judged by something he has just done, or by something he did not yet do. So that is the fundamental issue: the efficiency of institutions, the efficiency of politicians, and the efficiency of political parties. That is the issue that must be resolved to restore confidence in democracy. If the criteria will continue to be those of the twentieth century, the times will remain those of the twentieth century, the politicians will continue to be those of the twentieth century, and next year the confidence of the people [in democracy] will continue to fall.