Five things to watch for at the OAS General Assembly in Colombia

Member nations of Organization of American States are due to convene in Colombia to tackle the hemisphere’s challenges.

Opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro protest in Caracas [File: Fernando Llano/AP Photo]

Medellin, Colombia – Representatives from 35 governments in North and South America will convene Wednesday through Friday in Medellin, Colombia to tackle challenges facing the hemisphere.

The Organization of American States (OAS) meeting comes five months after Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked the country’s constitution to declare himself interim president, calling Nicolas Maduro‘s 2018 re-election illegitimate.

Millions of Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, fleeing hyperinflation, unemployment, violence and food and medicine shortages.

The majority have fled to other countries in the region, including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

Meanwhile, thousands of Central Americans have made the journey north to Mexico and the United States, fleeing extreme poverty, unemployment and high levels of violence. 

As officials from the region meet this week, here are five important discussions to watch:

1. Softening stance on Venezuela?

The political crisis in Venezuela will take centre stage, as it has in the last two OAS general assemblies.

A softer tone may surface, however, since years of harsh condemnation by the body has failed to affect Maduro’s grip on power. 


The OAS made its most drastic move in April this year, expelling Maduro’s representative and accepting a delegation sent by Guaido.

But months of fruitless struggle that culminated with a failed uprising, led by Guaido on April 30, have dimmed hopes for a hard takeover of Miraflores Palace.

“The possibility of a clean break, of a sudden change in power, has dissipated and there have to be other means to explore possibilities,” said Ivan Briscoe, Latin America director for the International Crisis Group.

According to some analysts, regional governments may walk back their hardline rejection of dialogue with the Maduro government, perhaps professing more faith in the direct dialogue between the two Venezuelan factions recently hosted in Oslo, Norway.

“I think this will be a test to see whether this coordination towards a peaceful democratic solution can withstand the harsh rhetoric and sabre rattling that are common on this issue in general assemblies,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher with the Washington Office on Latin America.

2. Venezuela migration

The assembly so far has proven unable to significantly affect the political situation inside Venezuela, so it may turn its attention to building a regional framework for the reception of Venezuela’s migrant exodus, which the UN expects to hit five million by the end of this year. 


“The region has already come up with the outline of a good agreement based on accepting burden sharing, information sharing and committing to similar migration policies,” said Jessica Bolter, a research assistant at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen in recent weeks that some countries have been going back on these commitments.”

Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Trinidad and Tobago recently tightened restrictions on Venezuelans arriving at their border.

Any regional agreement will need to offer some incentives to get all countries on board.

Such an agreement seems particularly urgent to Colombia, the assembly’s host country, which has welcomed the most Venezuelan refugees and migrants of any country and has been praised around the world for its progressive and pragmatic migration policy.

3. Central America migration

The hemisphere to date hasn’t seen any similar dialogue on the massive migration northward out of Central America, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing each year. 


But as the issue becomes a keystone in US politics, with members of the left denouncing what they call “concentration camps” for Central Americans on the US-Mexico border, it could finally break into the regional debate.

“It would be out of character, but it’s past time for the US to be grilled on this issue,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a risk consulting firm.

“The safe topic is Venezuelan migration but the conversation could easily go adrift. If that happens it will be an interesting development,” Guzman told Al Jazeera. 

Possible approaches could include programmes to alleviate crisis conditions driving migration from Central America or agreements for other regional nations to accept some of the people fleeing.

Until now, the main action from nations along the north migration route, including Guatemala, Mexico and the US, has been to lock down borders, preventing movement of people, largely due to pressure from Washington. The US has also been in talks about potential “safe third country” agreements, in which migrants would have to have to apply for asylum in the first “safe” country they arrive. 

Mexico has also ramped up its security along its borders, including sending or plans to send thousands of troops to its northern and southern borders. 

4. Corruption crackdowns

The region is still dealing with the fallout of the Odebrecht scandal, in which investigations revealed high-level bribes paid to do business in 10 American countries.

Presidents have lately won elections from Argentina to Colombia to Mexico on promises to root out government corruption. So far, little dramatic headway has been made.

Colombia this year proposed to the UN the creation of an international anti-corruption court. Yet the Colombian president’s own domestic anti-corruption law recently failed in the Colombian congress.

The OAS assembly will likely see leaders competing to bear the anti-corruption banner, possibly even producing some hard results.

5. Appeals for regional unity

Colombia has dubbed this assembly, “innovating to strengthen hemispheric multilateralism”, possibly a nod towards a crisis of unity and identity in the Americas today. 


UNASUR, once a 12-member alliance of South American nations founded at the peak of a leftist tide, was dissolved this year by a clique of fresh right-wing governments including Argentina, Colombia and Brazil.

Now, Argentina seems likely to rebound to a leftists president in October elections. Panama also moved leftward in presidential elections, some analysts expect a similar tide across other countries.

As the Trump administration in the US withdraws a degree of leadership here, it leaves many with the feeling of a lack of unifying authority.

“There should be some really serious discussion about what is involved in making a stable regional institution,” said Briscoe at the Crisis Group.

“We see a series of crisis that move day-to-day and place to place. They’re not going to be resolved one country at a time. They need a regional architecture, and that’s just simply lacking.”

Source: Al Jazeera