Order Code RS22095
Updated December 20, 2005
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Organization of American States: A Primer
Analyst in Latin American Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
The Organization of American States (OAS) is an international organization based
in Washington, D.C., comprised of 35 Western Hemisphere states. The OAS works to
promote democracy, protect human rights, preserve security, expand trade, and address
cross-cutting issues of hemispheric concern. In 2001, OAS member-states adopted the
Inter-American Democratic Charter, and the organization has made significant efforts
to deal with threats to democracy in Bolivia, Haiti, Venezuela, and, more recently, in
Nicaragua and Ecuador. In October 2004, the new Secretary General, Miguel Angel
Rodriguez, who had proposed a number of reforms to solve the OAS’s chronic budget
shortfalls, resigned amid allegations of corruption from his tenure as president of Costa
Rica. On May 2, 2005, José Miguel Insulza, the former Chilean minister of government,
was elected as Secretary General of the OAS. Insulza faces the challenges of solving
the organization’s budget crisis, preventing further democratic crises in the hemisphere,
and implementing the initiatives of the fourth Summit of the Americas held in Mar del
Plata, Argentina in November 2005. The United States is the main contributor to the
OAS. The FY2005 U.S. regular contribution to the OAS was $55.7 million; the FY2006
contribution is estimated at $65.9 million. This paper will be updated periodically.
The Organization of American States (OAS) is the oldest regional organization in
the world. The OAS evolved from a series of Inter-American conferences that began in
the 1820s and led to the creation of its predecessor, the Pan American Union, in 1910.
In 1948, following hemispheric cooperation during World War II, the Charter of the
Organization of American States was signed in Bogota, Colombia by the United States
and 20 Latin American nations. During its first decades, the OAS dealt primarily with
border disputes and collective security. Since the 1960s, the OAS has evolved — through
four amendments to its Charter — into a political organization of 35 Western Hemisphere
states that have pledged to promote democracy, advance human rights, preserve peace and
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security, pursue free trade, and tackle difficult problems caused by poverty, drugs, and
During the Cold War, the United States often pursued its primary interest in Latin
America — preventing the spread of communism — in a unilateral manner. At the same
time, many Latin American countries were ruled by military dictatorships. By the 1980s,
the OAS was widely perceived as a weak institution that was “mired in dissent and
inaction” as few of its member states were interested in multilateral efforts on behalf of
By 1990, the Cold War had ended and the vast majority of OAS member states had
returned to democratic rule. As a result of a new, shared commitment to democracy, the
OAS developed mechanisms that would enable it to take action to protect democracy in
troubled states. Some praised the “unprecedented multilateral efforts [that] have been
undertaken” by the OAS to counter anti-democratic developments in the region, especially
under the leadership of Secretary General Cesar Gaviria (1994-2004). Others have noted
that while the OAS rapidly responded to several crises in the early 1990s, recent practice
since 1997 points to a weakened commitment to take action in a timely and well-planned
manner. Still others note that OAS efforts have often been hampered by limited resources
and by an ongoing tension between the need for collective action and the need to respect
Organization. The governing body of the OAS is the General Assembly, which
convenes the foreign ministers of all member states annually to make consensus decisions
on the structure, funding, and guiding priorities of the organization. The last regular
meeting of the OAS General Assembly was held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in June 2005.
The Permanent Council, which is composed of ambassadors appointed by the member
states, meets regularly at OAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. to direct its ongoing
actions. The chairmanship of the Permanent Council rotates every three months, and each
member state has an equal vote in the decisions of the Council. Another Council of the
OAS, the Inter-American Council for Integral Development, is charged with fighting
poverty and promoting economic development. Two of the other bodies that currently
report directly to the OAS General Assembly are the Inter-American Juridical Committee
and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
While the General Assembly and the Permanent Council are political bodies that set
broad priorities for the OAS, the General Secretariat implements the ongoing programs
and policies of the organization. The General Secretariat is led by the Secretary General
All 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere have signed the OAS Charter and are members of
the organization. Although Cuba ratified the OAS charter, its government has been excluded
from participation in the organization since 1962.
Richard E. Feinberg, Summitry in the Americas: A Progress Report, Washington, D.C.: Institute
for International Economics, 1997.
Andrew F. Cooper, “The OAS Democratic Solidarity Paradigm: Questions of Collective and
National Leadership,” Latin American Politics and Society, Spring 2001; Dexter S. Boniface, “A
Democratic Norm for the Western Hemisphere?,” Paper for Latin American Studies Association
Conference, October 2004; T.A. Imobighe, The OAU (AU) and the OAS in Regional Conflict
Management: A Comparative Assessment, Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books, 2003.
and Assistant Secretary General, who are elected by the member states to five-year terms.
Specialized departments within the General Secretariat focus on issue areas such as
democracy and political affairs, human rights, integral development and security. In
October 2004, then-Secretary General Rodriguez issued an executive order which
changed the structure of the General Secretariat. The structural reforms sought to
streamline the organization’s functioning, and better allocate its limited resources (budget
and staff) into priority areas that fulfill the OAS mission. Two entities of particular
interest to the U.S. government — the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission
(CICAD), and the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism (CICTE) — retained
some autonomy, although they are now under the Department of Multinational Security.
Funding. The OAS budget consists of a regular fund, as well as specific funds
(coming from voluntary country contributions) for special programs. The regular fund
supports the General Secretariat and is financed by country quotas. As a result of
financial difficulties incurred by many member states and a reluctance to increase quotas,
the regular fund has remained at approximately $73.6 million for the past ten years. The
United States contributes roughly 59% of the regular fund. For FY2005, the U.S.
contribution to the OAS was an estimated $55.7 million through the Commerce, Justice,
State (CJS) appropriation (Title IV of P.L.108-447). Of the $55.7 million, $45.9 million
was for the regular fund, and $9.8 million was to pay tax reimbursements for U.S.
employees of the OAS. In FY2006, the U.S. contribution to the OAS is an estimated
$65.9 million. The increase is to cover the cost of taxes owed for U.S. employees likely
to retire in the coming year.
Since 1997, the OAS has raised specific funds for certain projects and programs in
order to supplement gaps in its regular fund. It raised more than $200 million in specific
funds between 2000 and 2004. The primary beneficiaries of those funds include the Unit
for the Promotion of Democracy, the Secretariat for Conferences and Meetings, CICAD,
and the Unit for Sustainable Development and Environment. For example, in January
2004, the OAS established a Mission of Accompaniment to the Peace Process in
Colombia. Secretary General Insulza recently called on member countries to contribute
extra funding so that the annual budget of that mission could reach some $10 million.
The United States has made substantial contributions to a few specific funds
developed by the OAS through Foreign Operations appropriations. The OAS Fund for
Strengthening Democracy supports OAS efforts to promote democracy and the InterAmerican Democratic Charter throughout the region; the FY2005 U.S. contribution was
$3 million, and the FY2006 estimated contribution is $2.5 million. OAS Development
Assistance Programs focus on Summit of the Americas mandates pertaining to economic
prosperity, social well being, and environmental health4; the FY2005 U.S. contribution
was $4.9 million, while the FY2006 estimated contribution is $5.2 million. The OAS Demining Program (AICMA) works to ensure that the Western Hemisphere is cleared of all
land mine devices; the FY2005 U.S. contribution was $1.8 million, while the FY2006
estimated contribution is $1.6 million. These contributions to specific funds give the
United States significant leverage over the types of projects undertaken by the OAS.
The bulk of these contributions support the Inter-American Council for Integral Development
(FEMCIDI). FEMCIDI, financed by voluntary contributions from member states and other assets,
contributes to national and multinational development projects.
Progress on Key Topics
Protection of Human Rights. In 1969, the Inter-American Convention on
Human Rights was adopted, which sets forth the duties of the two autonomous bodies
responsible for the protection of human rights: the OAS Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights (IAHCR) based in Washington, D.C., and the Inter-American Court of
Human Rights (IAC) based in San José, Costa Rica. The IACHR meets regularly to
monitor the human rights situation in the region, organizes conferences and seminars, and
submits cases to the IAC for deliberation. In its 2004 human rights report, the IACHR
expressed concern about the general situation of human rights in Bolivia, Cuba,
Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, and Venezuela.5 The IAC has seven judges, elected to six-year
terms by the General Assembly, who hear cases involving alleged human rights abuses
committed by a country against an individual or group. The IAC has asserted jurisdiction
over all 35 member states.
Promotion of Democracy. Since 1990, the OAS has taken an active role in
defending threats to democracy in the Western Hemisphere. In 1990, the OAS created
the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy (UPD), now part of the Department for
Democratic and Political Affairs, to assist its member states in strengthening democratic
institutions and processes. Between 1994 and 2004, the UPD sent 60 observation missions
throughout the region to ensure the fairness and transparency of electoral processes. In
2000, the UPD declared Peru’s presidential election to be illegitimate and sent a HighLevel Mission to Peru led by Sec. Gaviria to help resolve the country’s democratic crisis.6
In 1991, the OAS adopted resolution 1080, or the “Santiago Commitment,”
instructing the Secretary General to convoke the Permanent Council or the General
Assembly in the event of “a sudden or irregular interruption”of the democratic process
in a member state, and to act to resolve that conflict. In 1992, the OAS ratified the
Washington Protocol to the OAS Charter, becoming the first regional political
organization to allow suspension of a member state in the event that its democratically
elected government is overthrown by force. The OAS has yet to invoke the Washington
Protocol. Before resolution 1080 was superseded in 2001, the OAS limited its use to four
instances in which either a military coup, self-coup by an elected President, or severe
civil-military crisis occurred. Some observers have criticized the OAS’s failure to invoke
resolution 1080 more frequently as in the case of a successful coup against Jamil Mahuad
in Ecuador in 2000. Others have noted that even in cases when the OAS did act under
resolution 1080, such as Paraguay in 1996, its delayed response was of limited
On September 11, 2001, the OAS adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter
(IADC). The IADC broadens the mandate of resolution 1080 and states that the OAS
Available at [http://www.cidh.org/Comunicados/English/2005/8.05.htm].
For two contrasting views on the OAS efforts in Peru, see Andrew F. Cooper and Thomas
Legler, “The OAS in Peru: A Model for the Future?”, and Cynthia McClintock, “The OAS in
Peru: Room for Improvement,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 12, no. 4, October 2001.
Boniface, 2004; Arturo Valenzuela, “Paraguay: The Coup That Didn’t Happen,” Journal of
Democracy, vol. 8, no. 1, January 1997.
will respond to any democratic crisis that involves an “unconstitutional alteration of the
constitutional regime”of one of its member states.8 Since 2001, the OAS has employed
a combination of technical assistance through the UPD, high-level missions, conflict
resolution techniques, multilateral diplomacy, and, multilateral sanctions, in order to
respond to democratic crises in countries such as Bolivia, Haiti, Venezuela, and, more
recently, Nicaragua and Ecuador. In April 2002, the IADC was invoked when the OAS
condemned the “alteration of the constitutional order” in Venezuela that temporarily
forced President Chavez from power.9 Although it was utilized in the case of Venezuela,
the IADC has been criticized for being vague in defining what conditions constitute a
violation of its principles. Those conditions need to be clearly defined, former President
Jimmy Carter has said, and automatic responses developed that would help the OAS deal
with common violations of the Charter. Although many member countries agree with
that general assessment, a majority rejected the U.S. proposal set forth at the last General
Assembly in June 2005 to create an independent committee to monitor the exercise of
democracy in the region.10
Summits of the Americas. In 1994, the Clinton Administration hosted the first
meeting of regional leaders in more than 27 years at the Miami Summit of the Americas.
In Miami, hemispheric leaders signed a comprehensive plan of action with 23 separate
initiatives. The Miami Summit was followed by regular ministerial-level meetings, as
well as four presidential-level meetings: Summit of the Americas II (Santiago, Chile,
April 1998), Summit of the Americas III (Québec, Canada, April 2001), the Special
Summit of the Americas (Monterrey, Mexico, January 2004), and, most recently, the
Summit of the Americas IV (Mar del Plata, Argentina, November 2005). Each of the
summits has focused on a different topic, affording leaders a unique opportunity to
discuss issues of common concern and develop initiatives to resolve them. Nevertheless,
due to limited funding given to those initiatives or implementing agencies to carry them
out, some observers contend that summit initiatives have become “unfunded mandates”
given to the OAS and the Inter-American Development Bank.11
Combating Terrorism. In September 2001, the OAS swiftly condemned the
terrorist attacks on the United States and invoked the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal
Assistance (known as the “Rio Treaty”) and pledged to cooperate in counter-terrorism
efforts. The Inter-American Committee on Terrorism (CICTE), originally established in
1999, was revitalized and strengthened. CICTE has sponsored five regional meetings, and
has cooperated on border security mechanisms, controls to prevent funding of terrorist
organizations, law enforcement, and counterterrorism intelligence and information. In
Adopted by the General Assembly at its special session held in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11, 2001.
Available at [http://www.oas.org/main/main.asp?sLang=E&sLink=http://www.upd.oas.org].
See CRS Report RL32488, Venezuela: Political Conditions and U.S. Policy, by Mark P.
Address by Jimmy Carter at the Opening Conference of the Lecture Series of the Americas at
the Organization of American States, Washington, D.C., January 25, 2005. See
States Shun U.S. Plan to Watch Over Democracy,” New York Times, June 9, 2005.
Richard Feinberg et al., “Unfunded Mandates in the Western Hemisphere,” FOCAL, January
2004. Available at [http://www.sice.oas.org/geograph/westernh/Focal.pdf].
June 2002, OAS members signed a newly completed Inter-American Convention Against
Terrorism, paving the way for increased regional cooperation.
Target Priorities. On May 2, 2005, José Miguel Insulza, the former Chilean
minister of government, was elected as Secretary General of the OAS. Secretary General
Insulza has maintained the importance of paring down the organization’s many projects
and mandates and focusing on four main areas of work: political matters, human rights,
development, and security. Insulza asserts that the most important problem facing Latin
America is governance and that the OAS must work with its member countries to resolve
issues such as instability, lack of transparency, and problems with bureaucracy. The new
Assistant Secretary General of the OAS, Albert Ramdin, has added that the OAS should
not wait until there is a full-blown crisis in a member country to provide assistance, as
“many of these [recent governance] crises could have been prevented from escalating.
Ecuador is one example of that; Bolivia is another.”12
Summit of the Americas IV. On November 4-5, 2005, the fourth Summit of the
Americas was held in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Although ostensibly planned to focus on
employment generation, the Summit quickly shifted into a heated debate on the stalled
Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Amidst large and sometimes violent protests
against President George W. Bush and the FTAA, leaders failed to agree on advancing
the FTAA talks. Although 29 countries supported a U.S. proposal to renew negotiations
in 2006, the Mercosur countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay) rejected
resumption of the talks at this time, and Venezuela lobbied against any further efforts to
create the FTAA. Many observers maintain that this high-profile disagreement signaled
that the Summit was a failure and that there is ongoing strain in U.S. relations with the
region. Despite these trade disagreements, the countries did agree on a number of new
proposals, including the funding of a new institution to assess infrastructure project
proposals in the region and a Central American and Caribbean Fund. Secretary General
Insulza is now tasked with helping implement these and other proposals outlined in the
Declaration of Mar del Plata.13
Budgetary Limitations. The OAS regular fund has been frozen at roughly $77
million for more than 10 years, despite increasing operating expenses. The OAS has cut
staffing, streamlined its functioning, and rented out part of its building to attempt to cover
its operating expenses. Without specific funds to supplement its regular budget, some feel
the OAS would no longer be able to function. Some analysts have called for member
governments to strengthen the financial solvency of the OAS. Others have questioned
whether the OAS, an organization that has been criticized for being slow and inefficient,
merits increased funding. In 2003, Brazil, with U.S. support, called for a 3.5% country
quota increase, a proposal that was eventually rejected. Quota increases are unlikely to
be supported as some countries have not been able to keep up with their current quotas.
Larry Lutner, “New Secretary General Targets Priorities,” Americas, September 1, 2005;
“Assistant Secretary General Reaffirms OAS Aims,” Americas, September 1, 2005.
“Summit of Americas Ends in Deadlock,” Chicago Tribune, November 6, 2005, “White House
Lauds Summit of the Americas Accomplishments,” White House Press Release, November 5,
2005. See CRS Report RS20864, A Free Trade Area of the Americas, by J.F. Hornbeck.