On March 18, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) named Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro its newest secretary general in a near-unanimous vote. In a clear display of hemispheric unity as regional ties appear increasingly strained elsewhere, the unopposed Almagro received votes from representatives of 33 of the organization’s 34 member states gathered in Washington DC. Guyana abstained.
The 51-year-old lawyer and diplomat will replace outgoing Secretary General José Miguel Insulza of Chile, who has served two terms since May 2005. After Guatemalan Foreign Minister Eduardo Stein withdrew his candidacy for health reasons in January, Almagro received widespread regional support as the only remaining candidate. When he begins his term on May 25, Almagro will become the second Uruguayan to lead the OAS and the first since José Antonio Mora left the office in 1968.
During his campaign, Almagro expressed his desire to strengthen and bolster the independence of the OAS’s chief human rights protection bodies, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In recent years, proposed reforms to the IACHR have drawn ire from critics who say the changes compromise the entity’s autonomy.
The issue of human rights protection has featured prominently in discussions over the OAS and its new secretary general. Almagro’s election follows increasing tension between the United States and Venezuela in the wake of expanded U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses.
Almagro’s appointment also comes at a time when questions over the OAS’ relevancy and efficacy accompany concerns over a budget deficit and high levels of polarization within the organization. Almagro will get a preview of existing divisions when the hemisphere’s high-level leaders convene in Panama next month for the seventh Summit of the Americas, organized by the OAS. In September, Panama officially invited Cuba—suspended from the OAS in 1962—to attend the summit, prompting opposition from some U.S. policymakers and solidarity from Cuba’s regional allies. Meanwhile, Almagro, who approves of Cuba’s presence at the summit, has also expressed support for the country to return to the OAS as a full member.