The Inconvenient Diplomat

A farewell to the man who spoke out against Latin America’s leading bullies.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GettyImages
Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GettyImages

This week, after three and a half years of diplomatic service in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Guillermo Cochez (pictured on the right) left his post as Panama’s permanent representative to the Organization of American States (OAS). He was dismissed from his job by President Ricardo Martinelli for critical statements he made about the indefinite postponement of President Chávez’s inauguration in Venezuela. Cochez’s departure is a loss for the OAS. His voice will be sorely missed by those suffering under Latin American governments that have systematically eroded democracy and human rights.

Promoting democratic values and safeguarding human rights are supposed to be two of the pre-eminent goals of the OAS. They’re explicitly defined as such in Article 2 of the OAS Charter as well as Articles 3, 4, and 7 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Over the years, of course, both right-wing and left-wing dictators have done their best to subvert OAS monitoring mechanisms. While the conservative caudillos have faded away with time and the Cuban dictatorship has not been a member since 1962, a more recent group of leftist "soft authoritarians" such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has been pushing to water down respect for human rights among the 34 members of the OAS.

Yet along the way, Cochez — a Panamanian Christian Democrat with a 40-year career who first made his name opposing the military dictatorship in his home country — has stood out as one of the few diplomats who has been unafraid to take seriously the OAS mandate to safeguard democratic freedoms throughout Latin America.

Cochez didn’t need long to start speaking his mind. Soon after he assumed his duties in July 2009, he found himself attending an OAS Permanent Council meeting in December 2009 where his Venezuelan counterpart accused Globovisión — the only remaining critical TV channel in Venezuela — of leading a "media dictatorship." Taking the floor, Cochez caustically responded that "there is no bigger media dictatorship than that which imposes upon its people, through mandatory nation-wide TV broadcast, that they listen to speeches by its president [Chávez] for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve and sometimes even thirteen hours on the same day."

That first encounter would set the tone for Ambassador Cochez’s work at the OAS for the next three years.

Through his tenure, Cochez was particularly notable as the only Latin American diplomat who dared to challenge the legitimacy of the Cuban government — a single-party dictatorship which for decades has officially labeled any human rights defenders as "worms" or "mercenaries."

In October 2011, Cochez took the OAS floor to express condolences for the passing of Laura Pollán, leader of Cuba’s Ladies In White (a civil society group inside Cuba that organizes peaceful Sunday marches for freedom and human rights). This gesture was seconded only by the United States. Later, in July 2012, Cochez was the only OAS diplomat to say a single word regarding the death of leading Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who had just died in a mysterious car accident in Cuba.

Cochez was also unequivocal in supporting the beleaguered IACHR, the organization’s independent human rights body, and especially the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression — an active and effective media watchdog functioning since 1997. Both institutions have been the target of a recent "reform" effort by a group of countries, led by Venezuela, that aim to reduce them to insignificance.

In March 2012, Venezuela’s representative attacked the IACHR and its Special Rapporteur as "politicized," "selective" and "financed by generous donors who expect their political and economic interests to be protected." Cochez responded:

I believe we cannot and should not accept the argument that the IACHR is manipulated behind our own backs because, first, we would be validating something that is just not true, and, second, because we [the states] would be conceding that we are not capable of defending our interests in the face of an independent Inter-American human rights system.

Some have characterized Cochez’s stance as ironic, considering that the Panamanian government that Cochez himself represents has not shown the best democratic credentials. Yet Cochez consistently, if diplomatically, resisted Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli’s own caudillo tendencies. In May 2011, Cochez recounted an anecdote about a legislator from Martinelli’s party who had proposed a bill criminalizing insults against the president. Cochez explained that he had denounced the idea as "a step backwards," telling the lawmaker that he was actually "harming" the president "because freedom of expression could not be abridged."

Even so, Panama’s wanting record on human rights and democracy under Martinelli pales when compared to those of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. The presidents of these countries have variously abused their powers to rewrite constitutions, extend term limits, judicially persecute members of the opposition and the independent media, and take over legislatures and judiciaries.

Tellingly, these are the same countries that have led the OAS into irrelevance — at times through sophism, but more often through outright contempt for what they consider to be foreign "western democratic" principles. Not coincidentally, they’re also the ones who have supported the push to undermine the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

In 2010, President Chávez called the IACHR’s executive director, Santiago Cantón, "pure excrement," and in 2012, Venezuela became the first Latin American country to denounce the landmark 1969 American Convention of Human Rights. The Chávez government’s bold anti-IACHR rhetoric at the OAS is routinely echoed by its counterparts from Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. Lately, they’ve been joined, in part, by Colombia and Argentina.

Under the newly-coined "principle of non-selectiveness," these countries claim that the IACHR’s annual report, which singles out the countries undergoing the most serious human rights situations, should either address all the 34 OAS member states (as proposed by Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador) or have the name and shame section eliminated altogether (as proposed by Nicaragua and Venezuela).

Where do the remaining 27 OAS countries stand in all of this? They don’t. They have no clear stance.

Cochez alone dared to denounce "those [governments] which, through demagoguery and doublespeak, seek to weaken this organization."

The United States and Canada offered only tepid support for Cochez, even though these two countries have generally pushed for the IACHR to be strengthened. The same cannot be said of the OAS majority, consisting of 25 national delegations that are bullied by Venezuela into sepulchral silence or expressing tacit support for dictatorial Cuba as a legitimate "special" form of democracy. Few seem prepared to assert the democratic principles that the organization was founded, in part, to defend.

According to the OAS’s democracy clause, governments who seize power through coups, as well as democratically elected rulers that choose to erode democracy from within, should be monitored closely and pressured into restoring democracy or, eventually, suspended from the OAS. Under this standard, it was right, for example, to suspend the Honduras government of Roberto Micheletti from participation at the OAS in the wake of the June 2009 coup that removed President Zelaya. But the democracy clause should also have been applied to Venezuela, suspending the Chávez government from the OAS for its departures from democratic norms, as well as to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, who are also guilty of undermining democracy and violating human rights. Indeed, the OAS would have been entirely justified in putting the presidents of these countries under the same type of diplomatic monitoring mission the OAS created twice (in 1992 and 2000) to watch over Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori.

When the Inter-American Democratic Charter was signed in 2001 in the wake of Fujimori, it was unthinkable that just a decade later, Fujimori-like governments would be allowed to systematically violate human rights, maneuver their way into multiple reelections, and find themselves at will to court and praise the only dictatorship of the continent while torpedoing the OAS institutions from within.

It remains to be seen whether anyone can pick up where Cochez has left off, as the lone man daring to speak truth to the powers-that-be at the OAS. In the meantime, the organization is almost certainly destined to continue its slow slide into irrelevance.    

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