Strange things seem to happen in Washington DC when the temperature climbs. As the thermometer approached triple digits today, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HFAC) actually referenced the American classic film “Animal House.” The HFAC proposed cutting off funding for the Organization of American States (OAS), which the U.S. helped create and has supported from its founding in 1948.
As I describe in the forthcoming article “Is the OAS Irrelevant?” in the Americas Quarterly to be released on August 10 and available in Barnes & Noble stores beginning August 15, it has been a rough couple of years for the OAS. Most notable was the fiasco over the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras; recently a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has affirmed that the ouster of ex-President José Manuel Zelaya was, in fact, a coup. Then there was the controversial vote to end Cuba’s 50-year-old suspension, the continued blind eye that the organization seemed to turn toward Hugo Chávez’ antics in Venezuela, and a general sense that no adults were left to run the place.
The theoretical strength of the OAS is its inclusive nature. Yet that is also its weakness. All 34 countries in the Americas (except Cuba) are members and even the tiniest Caribbean nation can be heard during discussions. But because it is bound by consensus, that broad mandate works only so well as there is a consensus of approach among the members. As Latin America and the Caribbean have become increasingly diverse in their political and philosophical outlook, consensus of any kind had become harder to come by. As a consequence, the OAS itself has become mired in its own indecision.
Attacks on the OAS from Washington have been going on for years, but they have intensified during the tenure of current Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, a veteran Chilean politician known in his home country as “El Panzer.” With his socialist ties, Insulza was not the U.S.’ first choice nor its second. And criticism of his administration has become a wider chorus. Since he was elected to his first five-year term in 2005—he has since been re-elected last year—Insulza and the OAS have been the targets of bipartisan complaints and threats.
For his part, Insulza has continually defended the OAS and his own leadership, although his opinion is in the minority. He told me during a recent interview—which is recounted in the Summer 2011 AQ—that he believes the OAS has never been more relevant than it is today. “If you go around the region, the things that the OAS does and says are everywhere,” he said. Few in Washington would agree.
Congress has repeatedly threatened to cut off funding unless the organization shapes up. Every member of the OAS is expected to contribute a sum of money, based on a nation’s ability to pay. That means the small Caribbean nations throw relative pennies into the plate as it is passed around, while larger nations—Brazil, Mexico, Canada and of course the United States—are expected to write out big checks. In fact, the $48 million U.S. contribution accounts for more than half of the entire budget.
For all that money, the U.S. has limited power. It cannot be seen as controlling the agenda or the OAS would lose the ability to convene its member states. So Washington has to sometimes be a wallflower during debates. In the worst instances, it listens to attacks against its own policies, or stands by while others offer apologies or rationales for the actions of states that clearly defy the organizations’ own principles, foremost among them a commitment to functioning democracy.
That’s where “Animal House” comes in. Rep. David Rivera, a Florida Republican on the HFAC, lashed out at the OAS during today’s markup of the State Department budget, calling the group “an enemy of the U.S. and an enemy to the interests of freedom and security.” He then likened Washington’s continued support of the OAS to the part of “Animal House” where a fraternity pledge named Chip Diller is solemnly whacked on the rear end with a wooden board. After each strike to his behind—and his ego—Chip obsequiously requests another.
Rivera told the committee that the United States is acting just like Chip Diller. “How much longer will we say to the OAS ‘Please sir, may I have another,’” Rivera said. (Actually, in the film Chip repeatedly says, “Thank you sir, may I have another”—which Rivera should have checked because it is even more humiliating than he implied.)
Democrats on the committee opposed the funding cut, contending that despite the continuing frustrations, remaining in the OAS—and continuing engagement with the hemisphere—is more important to U.S. interests than withdrawing from the hemispheric alliance.
At the end of the day, however, the committee voted along party lines, 22-20, to strip the OAS of the entire $48 million funding.
That all-out attack on the organization came after Rep. Connie Mack, a long time foe of the OAS and Insulza, introduced a bill (H.R. 2542) to cut U.S. funding by 20 percent each time the Permanent Council meets but fails to condemn Chávez and Venezuela for violating the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, which pledges the group to supporting democracy and excluding states that violate democratic principles. Mack is incensed by the way Chávez, with the help of a supportive lame-duck legislature, late last year pushed through a package of laws that will allow him to essentially ignore the growing opposition and further his continued rule.
In 2009, Mack introduced a similar bill to withhold funding from the OAS. That time, he was ready to punish the group if Cuba was readmitted as a member.
All this best brings to mind yet another line from “Animal House,” this time from Daniel Simpson “D-Day” Day, a wired college student. As his statement goes: “We have an old saying in Delta House: Don’t get mad, get even.”
Anthony DePalma is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He was a former foreign correspondent in Latin America for the New York Times and is now writer-in-residence at Seton Hall University. He is the author of “Is the OAS Irrelevant?” appearing in the Americas Quarterly Summer 2011 issue to be released on August 10, 2011.