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Organization of American States

Multinational institution established in 1948 by the U.S. and Latin American governments to promote international cooperation within the Western Hemisphere. The concept of an organization to encourage cooperation among Western Hemispheric nations originated in the early nineteenth century, when the South American revolutionary war hero Simón Bolivar unsuccessfully proposed a league of Latin American republics. Decades later, the United States revived the idea with more success and with a different agenda: the promotion of trade. At a conference in Washington, D.C., during 1889–1890, eighteen Western Hemispheric nations founded the Commercial Bureau of the American Republics (later transformed into the Pan-American Union), with headquarters in Washington, D.C.

After 1945 various pressures, many related to the Cold War, led the U.S. and Latin American governments to seek closer cooperation through new institutions. Latin American leaders worried about declining U.S. economic engagement following World War II and sought to open new channels for encouraging U.S. aid and investment. President Harry Truman's administration, anxious about worsening Cold War tensions, hoped to consolidate U.S. authority in the hemisphere.

In 1947, the United States and nineteen Latin American governments signed the Rio Pact, a mutual defense treaty that advanced the long-standing U.S. effort to make enforcement of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine a multilateral responsibility. A year later, twenty-one Western Hemispheric nations gathered in Bogotá, Colombia, to discuss economic and political relations. On 30 April 1948, the attending nations signed the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The OAS called for efforts to promote peace, prosperity, and democracy in the hemisphere and established mechanisms for resolving disputes among member states. At the insistence of Latin American governments keenly aware of the long record of U.S. intervention in their nations, the OAS also declared the principle of nonintervention. Adopted over U.S. objections, Article 15 of the OAS Charter asserted that "no State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State."

In the decades that followed, Washington repeatedly overcame this limitation by using the OAS as a means to attain U.S. geopolitical objectives behind a façade of regional solidarity. President Dwight Eisenhower's administration established this pattern in 1954 when it used the OAS to help oust the left-leaning government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. The administration had calculated that an OAS resolution condemning Arbenz would give a veneer of legitimacy to U.S. action against the regime. Washington told Latin American governments that the episode was a "test case" of the OAS's ability to defend the hemisphere and threatened to act alone if the organization failed to take a stand. With only Guatemala in opposition, sixteen Latin American governments grudgingly supported the United States. In June 1954, as a military operation sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew Arbenz, U.S. leaders claimed to be acting in the interests of the OAS.

The OAS performed a similar function when the United States sought to apply pressure on Cuba during the early 1960s. When Cuban leaders complained to the United Nations (UN) about U.S. hostility, Washington convinced the UN Security Council that the OAS, not the UN, was the appropriate body to consider the issue. Under the guise of regional cooperation, the United States then maneuvered to exclude Cuba from the OAS. At a ministerial meeting in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in January 1962, President John Kennedy's administration won OAS approval—by a one-vote margin—of a statement declaring "Marxism-Leninism incompatible with the American system."

When the United States was on the losing end of OAS votes, U.S. officials sometimes ignored the organization and simply acted unilaterally. Before the 1982 Falklands War, for example, the OAS voted 17–0, with the United States abstaining, to back Argentina's claim to the disputed islands. Washington then imposed economic sanctions against Argentina and sent military aid to Britain. In 1989, the United States ignored a 20–1 vote in the OAS condemning its December 1989 invasion of Panama.

Mark Atwood Lawrence

Further Reading
Smith, Gaddis. The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine, 1945–1993. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.; Smith, Peter H. Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.–Latin American Relations. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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