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Leftist-Backed Chilean Official Likely to Head OAS

Mexican candidate bows out, clearing Insulza's way. A U.S. choice had always filled the post.

April 30, 2005|Hector Tobar and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

SANTIAGO, Chile — Mexico's foreign minister on Friday withdrew his candidacy to head the Organization of American States, clearing the way for a Chilean backed by left-leaning South American presidents to become its next leader.

The announcement by Luis Ernesto Derbez marked the second time in four weeks that a U.S.-backed candidate had stepped aside after failing to secure enough support to lead the OAS, a kind of regional United Nations that brings together all the countries of the Western Hemisphere except Cuba.

With no remaining opposition, Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza will become the next secretary-general of the group when diplomats meet in Washington on Monday to vote.

Five South American governments with center-left or populist presidents backed Insulza's candidacy. Until Friday, the U.S., Mexico and most Central American countries supported Derbez. On Friday, though, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined other OAS diplomats in supporting Insulza as the consensus choice.

Officials traveling with Rice during her tour of South America this week said she had been working to avoid a contentious vote Monday. In the past, candidates backed by the U.S. never lost an OAS election.

This month, a series of votes pitting Derbez against Insulza ended in five consecutive 17-17 ties. The OAS then adjourned the next vote until early May, with diplomats from several countries lobbying fence-sitters for their votes.

As late as Wednesday, Derbez said he was still a candidate. Several countries, including Canada, proposed their own diplomats as possible compromise choices. But in the end, the South American bloc led by Presidents Ricardo Lagos of Chile and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil prevailed.

"The Bush administration's mishandling of a situation that called for diplomacy and strategic thinking has had huge costs for U.S. credibility and influence in the region," said Michael Shifter, a senior analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

At a news conference in Santiago, the site of a regional diplomatic summit, Derbez and Insulza appeared together to announce that the Mexican candidate was stepping aside in the name of regional "consensus." Attending the event with them were diplomats from many OAS nations, including Rice.

"I want to thank those countries that have given me their support and who have worked to reach this consensus that will strengthen the OAS," Insulza said.

For many observers, the campaign had become the most visible sign of a growing rift in the Americas. For the South American bloc, which also includes Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay, the Insulza candidacy offered a chance to demonstrate their independence from the United States. Many in South America believe that U.S. influence in the region is gradually diminishing.

"The North American imperial power is trying to make itself the owner of the OAS again, because it can see the OAS slipping out of its hands," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said this month. Chavez was among Insulza's most vocal supporters.

Analysts said U.S. diplomats had backed Derbez because they worried that if Insulza won the OAS vote, it might be seen as a victory for Chavez, a maverick who has made rhetorical attacks on the Bush administration a centerpiece of his tenure.

"The U.S. is apprehensive about Chavez building a bloc in the region that has an anti-U.S. agenda," Shifter said.

On Friday, U.S. diplomats said Insulza's ascension to the top OAS post should not be seen as a victory for Chavez. Insulza "doesn't really share any common ground with Chavez," a senior U.S. official told reporters traveling with Rice.

In his comments Friday, Insulza said he would place democratic governance at the center of the OAS agenda. He said member states should follow the precepts laid out in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter and that "those who don't govern democratically should be held accountable."

U.S. officials said Insulza used such language at the urging of Rice, who saw it as a slap at Chavez. Opponents of the Venezuelan leader have accused him of muzzling the nation's media and manipulating the judiciary to keep his hold on power.

The most recent OAS secretary-general, Miguel Angel Rodriguez of Costa Rica, was forced to step down because of a corruption scandal back home. Luigi R. Einaudi of the United States has served as acting head since that time.

Traditionally, the U.S. has been a behind-the-scenes power broker in the selection of new secretary-generals, and the actual vote has been a formality.

This time, the Americans first backed the candidacy of former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores, a conservative who was the only president in the region to join the United States in backing the failed 2002 rebellion against Chavez.

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