The charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) was signed in Bogota, Colombia, in 1948 and went into force in December 1951. The purpose of the OAS is to strengthen the peace and security of the Western Hemisphere; promote and strengthen democratic governments; prevent and resolve conflict between member states while respecting principles of nonintervention; and prevent aggression against member states. To a lesser extent the OAS is also charged with finding solutions to the economic, political, and social problems of member states; promoting social, economic, political, and cultural development; and limiting the proliferation of arms so as to devote resources to economic and social development. The OAS thus advances peace, security, understanding, and development among it members. In 1998 OAS members were: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Cuba's membership in the OAS was suspended in 1962 following the removal of Soviet missiles from that island country.
Although not established until 1948 the OAS can trace its ideological beginnings to the First Congress of the United States which was convened in Panama City by the Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar (1783-1830). This meeting resulted in the Treaty of Perpetual Union, League, and Confederation, which was signed by Colombia, the United Provinces of Central America, Peru, and Mexico. The Congress ultimately failed as only one government ratified the agreement.
In 1889, however, representatives of 18 American republics met in Washington, D.C., at the behest of U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine. As a result of this conference, the Bureau of American Republics, the purpose of which was to collect and exchange commercial information, was created. The OAS can trace its descent directly from this organization. In 1910 the organization's name was changed to the Union of American Republics with the Pan-American Union being its principal organ. By 1913 the Pan-American Union was maintaining a permanent staff and headquarters in Washington. In 1923 the name was again changed, this time to the Union of Republics of the American Continent; the Pan-American Union became its permanent organ. In 1945 and in 1947 the organization agreed to the Act of Chapultepec and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, respectively, which established collective security, defense, and peacekeeping agreements for the Western Hemisphere. In 1948 the OAS charter was agreed upon in Bogot́a during the Ninth International Conference of American States; transition from the Pan-American Union to the OAS proceeded smoothly.
A major function of the OAS over the decades has been that of a hemispheric peacekeeper as authorized by the Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. The OAS played an important role in resolving border conflicts between Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 1948 and 1978; Peru and Ecuador in 1981; and Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, 1970, and 1976. In 1964 the OAS imposed sanctions against Cuba for fomenting revolutionary activity in Venezuela; in 1965 it sent an inter-American peacekeeping force to the Dominican Republic. OAS peacekeeping activities have also been involved in maritime and naval disputes between Colombia and Venezuela in 1988 and Trinidad and Venezuela in 1989. The OAS served as a forum for the denunciation of Manuel Noriega's drug trafficking in Panama in 1989, monitored elections in Nicaragua in 1990, and monitored human-rights violations in Haiti in 1993.
Since its inception the OAS has received strong political and financial support from the United States. American foreign policy, however, has often run afoul of OAS stands on hemispheric issues. This was especially true concerning the Panama Canal prior to the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, America's support of Great Britain retaking the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982, and the American invasion of Grenada in 1983. In 1995 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared the United States to be in violation of OAS principles concerning the embargo of food and medicine to Cuba. In 1996 the Inter-American Judicial Committee ruled that the American Helms-Burton legislation—which allows punitive measures against foreign companies trading with Cuba—did not conform to international law. The OAS was also at odds with President Bill Clinton's continuing "decertification" of countries deemed unreliable allies in the U.S. war on drugs. Many Latin American countries have been or are threatened with decertification, including Peru and Bolivia, which grow coca; and Colombia and Mexico, which process it and transport the finished product to the United States. Decertification carries with it the threat of visa refusals, loss of financial aid, and blockage of commerce.
The OAS has also been active in promoting inter-American aid and development. In 1958 a massive financial cooperation plan, the Operação Pan Americana, was proposed. The purpose of the plan was to foster, through public investment, economic and social conditions that would then attract private investment. This plan culminated in President John F. Kennedy's 1961 Alliance for Progress. As a result, nearly $16 billion worth of external assistance was generated between 1958 and 1970.
In another effort to aid the various peoples of OAS countries, the Telecommunications Commission (CITEL) was created in 1993. CITEL is the telecommunications agency of the OAS and its purpose is to promote a modern telecommunication infrastructure within OAS member countries.
The chief administrative body of the OAS is the General Secretariat. The secretariat is responsible for implementing policy set by the General Assembly and the two councils. The Permanent Council is responsible for relations with other international organizations and promoting harmony amongst OAS members. The Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) replaced the Inter-American Economic and Social Council and the Inter-American Council for Education, Science, and Culture in 1996. The CIDI is responsible for accelerating regional economic and social development. The General Assembly is the supreme policy-making body of the OAS; it meets annually and when called into special sessions by the Permanent Council.
[ Michael Knes ]
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"To Decertify, or Not? There Are Better Ways for the United States to Battle against Drugs." Economist, 21 February 1998, 16.
U.S. Department of State. Bureau of Public Affairs. Office of Public Communication. Background Notes: Organization of American States. Washington: GPO, 1994.