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OAS faces test of relevance after crisis of confidence in US

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The Organization of American States holds its annual general assembly here this week amid signs its influence as the region's arbiter keeps waning.

Foreign ministers attending the June 3-5 meeting are due to sign a Declaration of Asuncion committing to greater efforts to improve social inclusion in the UN's regional body for the Americas.

Their agenda will range more broadly -- from the Falkland Islands dispute to climate change, combating drug trafficking and indigenous rights -- far from the packed US-led agenda of the Cold War era.

Albert Ramdin, the organization's assistant secretary general, said 28 foreign ministers ares set to attend, which would make it the highest-level general assembly since one held in Honduras in 2009.

That year, a coup took place against elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.

The stunning development exposed the widening ideological rift among OAS members, and deeply undermined the region's faith in the OAS and the United States.

Countries across the region were aghast that the United States did not actively defend Honduras's democratically elected leader, in conflict with the OAS charter.

The regional body is supposed to intervene collectively, diplomatically, when a member-state's elected government is ousted, at the very least.

And particularly staunch US critics such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela questioned the OAS's legitimacy, accusing the US-based body of allowing itself to be manipulated by the American government.

Some regional analysts said Washington was much more relieved that an elected leader -- who had turned to the left once in office -- was toppled, than upset about the violation of the OAS's basic defense of democracy.

And five years on, the fallout from members' crisis of confidence in the OAS -- and in US choices over the 2009 events -- remains. So other regional organizations are trying to fill a perceived void.

This time, the only governments that will send lower-ranking delegations are some small countries and the United States, whose secretary of state, John Kerry, will be attending a G7 meeting in Brussels.

Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter said the assembly is limiting itself to the statement on poverty and inequality because that's the only issue on which there is consensus among the governments of the left and the right.

Shifter maintains that crucial issues like the crisis in Venezuela or drug policy were "deliberately" pushed to the sidelines in this assembly because "there is simply no consensus among the OAS's member governments."

"The OAS meeting's objective is to avoid controversial matters," he said.

- Many blocs, deeper divisions -

Since the creation of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) 23 years ago -- formed by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and more recently Venezuela -- Latin America has established other blocs that are independent of the United States.

Such is the case of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which includes Cuba but not the United States or Canada, and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur).

Differences over critical issues like the political situation in Venezuela and Cuba or the collective defense of democracy have added up to what analysts say is the OAS's worst period of weakness in its history.

Chile, which is not a full member of Mercosur and promotes the Pacific Alliance -- a trading bloc with Colombia, Mexico and Peru -- is aware of the differences and wants to build bridges over them under its new President Michelle Bachelet.

What "predominates today in Latin America is diversity" in politics and economic policy, Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz told La Tercera newspaper.

In Munoz's view, it's not about fusing positions but opening lines of dialogue and communication that span "the differences in the region, that diversity, which is legitimate."

- Sticking points -

Besides Venezuela and Cuba, one matter that could ignite controversy at this year's assembly is the reform of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Countries such as Ecuador, stung by criticism of its treatment of the press, are demanding increased control by governments over the commission's activities and that its headquarters be moved out of Washington.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has worked with another bloc, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America (ALBA), to make sure the issue is not forgotten in Paraguay.

"The countries are moving in different directions, and it's increasingly difficult to find agreement on key issues," said Shifter.

"It's paradoxical that there are so many new regional groups and at the same time the region is more divided than ever, at least in political terms."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140601/oas-faces-test-relevance-after-crisis-confidence-us