June 04, 2012

The OAS in Bolivia

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Bolivia is hosting the 42nd OAS General Assembly in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The image left, is from the first Plenary Session and, along with other images and videos, is available from the OAS' flickr account free of charge.

The organization of such an event is very significant for Bolivia and the government of Evo Morales. Principally, because it attracts the attention of the world on the country, its problems and its achievements. Above all, the government is interested to showcase what it deems its achievements. At the same time, however, the country becomes the attention it wants and the kind of attention it doesn't want. So, it is a thin line to walk on.

So far, viewed from the outside, the government of Morales and therefore the country, has shown itself, on the one side, in good light, because it has proven itself capable to host such an event and, on the other side, self-secure and pugnacious, because it has not hesitated on attacking "the Empire" in its introductory speeches.

The 42nd assembly has thus began on Sunday, June 3rd, however, with what has become a heavy agenda. To start of, the theme of the assembly was Food Security with Sovereignty, which was suggested by the Bolivian government. In this light, in the speeches of the first day, there were strong statements, especially by Morales, to secure first essential foods for the people of the Americas. Another theme that dominated and is proving difficult is that of the reform or not of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). This organization, subordinated to the OAS, has been the target of attacks principally by the presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador, who have said that the IACHR must be reformed or it should be abolished. Evo Morales said that the organization that watches the state of human rights in the Americas should also criticize the US, however instead he accused the IACHR of responding to US interests. The IACHR in the last years has published critical reports (2011 report pdf, English) on what it sees a worrying development of the human rights situation in Bolivia (it has also published reports on Venezuela and Ecuador and about the immigration issue in the US, pdf, English).

The issue of the IACHR is already the dividing issue in the assembly and has already the potential to stop agreement on what is supposed to be the result of the meeting, i.e. signing of the declaration of Cochabamba. At the heart of the problem is the reform of an organization which as in the past published critical reports of some "revolutionary" government in the Americas. Critics of such reforms argue that they would diminish the independence of the organization would give the assembly too much to say on the actions of the IACHR.

Parallel to the assembly, the OAS and its Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, has had to deal with other, more local issues. For example, there have been reports criticizing what is going on in Bolivia. For example, the UN has published a report on drug-trafficking through Bolivia. The report calls the attention to the fact, as they see it, that in Bolivia drug trafficking has increased and that during the Morales presidency. Another issue Insulza has had to deal with was a petition from an opposition party candidate, the UN, to speak with the opposition, which is being persecuted by the government. The OAS seen itself forced to attend the complaints of opposition.

However, the issue that has taken the most attention of the press and, for sure, of the citizens has been the intention of the Bolivian government to include a petition in the agenda that addresses Bolivia's historical claim to Chile for a "sovereign access to the sea". Insulza has was forced to agree to such demand. Morales himself, in the opening ceremony, said that Bolivia will never give up demanding a sovereign access to the Pacific sea. Morales wants to make the issue a multilateral one while Chile has consistently argued that the issue is a bilateral one, if not one that is already agreed upon.

Morales in the end, in his fiery speech, inaugurated the assembly challenging the status quo and urging the OAS to reform itself or die as a political tool of the US government. Correa's speech sounded similar to that of Morales. Insulza, on his part defended the organization arguing that the OAS has already proven useful in recent years of crisis.

As a foot note, which is also worth mentioning, the organization of the assembly has not been free of problems, some small and others not so small. For example, the schedule was not followed and in consequence protocol was broken; sound systems did not work and speakers (such as Insulza) could not be heard well; and some indigenous ceremonies which were not explained were carried out to the disorientation of participants. However, some more serious mishaps included instances where journalists' accreditation and those of civil society organizations were chaotic, if not outright problematic. Some organizations could not get the official accreditation and therefore could not participate. Some journalists could not get accreditation and therefore could not cover the event. Curious was that some journalists known for their critical view on the government could not gain access to the assembly. Moreover, the room was attended by groups who were known supporters of the government. Other critical groups, such as the leaders of the TIPNIS march (a march that is going on in protest of the government's plans to build a road through an indigenous territory) could not enter the building. Finally, the prevention of some journalists from accessing the meeting place even if they had official accreditation.

The 42nd General Assembly of the OAS will be an interesting one. Not only because issues such as food security and water rights are being addressed in a multilateral manner, in a form which has not been the norm until the arrival of these "revolutionary" government, but also because it has placed the organization and its president in a difficult place between opposition and governmental forces within Bolivia. In addition, the issues being addressed are very sensitive issues and difficult to properly address. Insulza is being tested here in his ability to deal with political as well as sensitive ethnic and social issues.


You can watch the webcast on the OAS web site.

In 15 minutes you will be able to see the statements from Bolivia, Chile and Argentina regarding the sea access conflict and the Malvinas problem...click on the above link! Worth to mention, that it can be seen in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French.