On 17 March, Hugo de Zela, the Peruvian candidate for secretary-general of the Organization of American States, pulled out of the race, opening the way to the re-election this weekend of the incumbent Luis Almagro. Ever since announcing his campaign in December, de Zela had faced opposition from the US administration which put pressure on him to withdraw.
De Zela’s candidacy had been put forward by Peru to create a sort of ‘third way’ that was neither Almagro nor his other opponent Maria Fernanda Espinosa from Ecuador. He was the only candidate of the three officially backed by his own country. Almagro was sponsored by Colombia, not his native Uruguay. Espinosa was backed by Antigua and Barbuda, not by Ecuador.
Almagro’s four years at the helm in the OAS headquarters in Washington has been characterised by his crusade against the Maduro government in Venezuela. Rather than stick to the traditional script of past OAS leaders in seeking reconciliation between Latin American countries, he has taken a highly partisan position against Caracas. This has also led him into attacking other pro-Maduro governments such as that of Daniel Ortega’s in Nicaragua and Bolivia under Evo Morales.
Espinosa’s candidacy is backed primarily by Venezuela and other countries in the former pro-Venezuela orbit, including a number of small island states in the Caribbean. Several countries who are members of Caricom have been particularly critical of Almagro. Under the OAS election rules there is one vote per state; Brazil has the same weight as Dominica or Saint Kitts Nevis.
Peru’s decision to sponsor de Zela’s candidacy took many by surprise. The country has hitherto taken a leading role in orchestrating the so-called Lima Group of countries which have called on Maduro to go. Some countries, including Peru, however, remain concerned by the bellicose tactics of the Trump administration with respect to Venezuela and the possibility of an armed intervention.
The US administration has enthusiastically backed Almagro’s campaign to win another four years as secretary-general. Many countries perceive him to be a pawn of Washington. His victory in the election of 20 March, however, seems assured. Even in the Caribbean, Venezuela no longer calls the shots.