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The Organization of American States

An Overview of the Organization of American States

By

Secretary General of the Organization of American States

Former Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza, the new Secretary General of the Organization of American States, prepares for a press conference after his election was announced May 2, 2005 in Washington, DC.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Updated December 29, 2010

The Organization of American States

The Organization of American States (OAS) is the world’s oldest regional organization, originating in the late 19th century. Today, all thirty-five countries of the Western Hemisphere are members of the Organization of American States. The official languages of the OAS are English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Led by a Secretary General, the diplomats of the General Assembly and Permanent Council meet in cities throughout the Americas and discuss the organization’s major goals. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Organization of American States pledges to promote and protect democracy, security, human rights, and development in the Americas. Democracy is so highly regarded that the Organization will suspend any member country that experiences unconstitutional change. Suspension has occurred twice in the organization’s history, and the status of Cuba and Honduras as members remains controversial.

History of the Organization of American States

The Organization of American States traces its roots to the First International Conference of American States of 1890. Diplomats from several countries met to discuss trade and arbitration of disputes. They decided to meet periodically, and these meetings were the basis of the OAS. After World War II, twenty-one countries declared common goals of collective defense and human rights, and signed the Charter of the Organization of American States in Bogota, Colombia in 1948. Fourteen more countries joined the OAS from 1948-1991. The OAS responded to crises in places like Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, and Haiti in the last few decades.

The OAS Political Union

The Organization of American States is a political organization, though each state is completely sovereign and retains its territorial integrity. The OAS oversees and assists many political activities. Collective security and defense is a major goal. Though the OAS condemns wars of aggression, all thirty-five countries will respond to an aggressive act on one country by an outside force. The OAS assists in solving border disputes, like those in Guatemala/Belize, Peru/Ecuador, and the 2010 Nicaragua/Costa Rica dispute caused by a discrepancy on Google Maps. The OAS monitors the fairness of elections and the avoidance of corruption. The 2000 Peru election was considered illegitimate by the OAS. Haiti asked the OAS for assistance in resolving the disputed 2010 election results.

Better Lives Through OAS

Social welfare is a crucial issue to the Organization of American States. The OAS wrote the world’s first declaration of universal human rights in 1948.

The organization vows to promote freedom, justice, health, education, and employment for all. The OAS has investigated human rights abuses in many countries. In order to eradicate extreme poverty and inequality, the OAS researches and implements projects related to disease prevention and treatment, improved nutrition and sanitation, gender equality, and agricultural development. The OAS especially tries to improve the lives of women, children, refugees, the elderly, the disabled, indigenous peoples, and victims of natural disasters and racism. The OAS promises to protect the rich cultures of the Americas. All citizens are encouraged to participate in political activities.

“Subversive” Cuba

Cuba was a founding member of the Organization of American States, but because the government of Cuba aligned itself with communist principles in the Cold War, the OAS suspended Cuba from participating in the OAS in 1962. For nearly the next decade, the status of Cuba in the OAS was debated. In 2009, the OAS lifted the suspension of Cuba. However, to rejoin the OAS, Cuba must initiate the discussions that will prove its willingness to follow democratic principles and honor human rights. It is currently unlikely that Cuba will choose to rejoin. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro has accused the United States of exploiting Latin American nations.

Honduran Coup

The military of Honduras staged a coup d’état and removed President Manuel Zelaya from office in June 2009. Due to this unconstitutional interruption of democracy, Honduras was suspended from active participation in the organization. The OAS sent diplomatic missions to Honduras to encourage the return to democracy. The readmission of Honduras is contentious. The United States believes Honduras’ current president has tried to reestablish democracy, but other Latin American countries believe that the coup leaders have not been punished for their unconstitutional actions which violated human rights. They want President Zelaya to return from exile and become president again.

Compassionate Foreign Countries

The interests of the Organization of American States are important to nations around the world. The OAS works with other international organizations like the United Nations. Sixty-four countries, plus the European Union, are “Permanent Observers” of the OAS. Countries such as China, Israel, Japan, Nigeria, Russia, and South Africa contribute funding, training programs, mediators, and equipment to solve political crises and spur development in the Western hemisphere.

OAS Challenges Exist

Although the Organization of American States has been largely successful in promoting peace and development, there are some problems that weaken the organization. Budget shortfalls exist annually. The organization has been considered slow in responding to emergencies. Many states believe that the United States has too much power and influence in the OAS. The needs of some smaller, less developed countries may be sometimes overlooked. Establishing free trade throughout the hemisphere has been difficult because many Latin Americans distrust American multinational corporations, some of which have exploited Latin American landscape and citizens.

Positive Future For The Organization of American States

In conclusion, the Inter-American system of political and economic integration has experienced challenges throughout 110 years, but the Organization of American States will undoubtedly continue to protect democracy and human rights in the hope that all citizens of the Western Hemisphere, and the entire world, can be free, healthy, educated, and prosperous.

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