Kerry demands OAS reforms at general assembly

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waves as he arrives to La Aurora air force base in Guatemala City June 4, 2013. At left is Rita Claverie, vice foreign minister of Guatemala, and at right is Arnold Chacon, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala. AP

GUATEMALA CITY U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is demanding reforms in the 35-nation Organization of American States as he visits Latin America for the first time since taking office.

Leading the U.S. delegation to the annual general assembly of the OAS -- an organization he has disparaged as ineffective, inefficient and nearly irrelevant -- Kerry will try to convince fellow members of the need for major changes in its bureaucracy and a return to its core mission of promoting human rights, democracy and development.

Officials traveling with Kerry said he also would be making the case against legalization of marijuana at the national level, lobbying for the election of the U.S. candidate for a hemispheric human rights panel and trying to improve badly damaged relations with Venezuela.

Kerry arrived Tuesday at the Guatemalan mountain resort of Antigua and began his two-day program with a meeting with Guatemala's president.

Drugs, U.S. immigration reform and good governance were to top the agenda in those talks, the two men told reporters.

The OAS often is criticized in the United States and Kerry wrote a scathing editorial about its failures and need to reform three years ago while he was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He then introduced legislation in Congress aimed at requiring significant budget reforms in the organization.

Just last year, shortly before he was nominated to be secretary of state, Kerry penned a letter to the OAS permanent council with three other senators bemoaning that the group "has been forfeiting its effectiveness" with a lack of strategic focus and fiscal recklessness.

The State Department said Monday that Kerry believed the bloc was an organization of critical importance to the Americas and that his participation in the general assembly was aimed at helping to strengthen it.

"The fact that he is going to the OAS and he is spending two days there participating sends a clear signal that he thinks this remains the premier multilateral organization in the hemisphere," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"In order to assure that the OAS retains that status, it must refocus on its core principles," she said, stressing democracy, human rights, development and regional security. "Strengthening it is of course part of (Kerry's) agenda and part of what he'll be focused on in the next couple of days."

As a senator in 2010, Kerry made similar, though not as subtle, points in an opinion piece he co-wrote with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., his successor as head of the Foreign Relations Committee.

"Sadly, its culture of consensus has often been the breeding ground of the ideas that reflect the lowest common denominator, rather than the highest ambitions of diplomacy and cooperation," they wrote in The Miami Herald.

The pair excoriated the OAS for becoming "a pliable tool of inconsistent political agendas" and suggested that they agreed with critics who called the organization "a grazing pasture for third-string diplomats."

Psaki played down the last comment, saying she "would hardly call the secretary of state a third-string diplomat." Kerry's mere presence at the meeting demonstrates his and the Obama administration's commitment to improving the OAS, she said.

In November 2012, Kerry and Menendez, along with Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Marco Rubio of Florida, wrote that OAS finances had become dangerously precarious and that it must reform, pare back superfluous projects or risk losing support from its prime contributor, the United States.

The United States has over the past decades found itself at growing odds with numerous Latin and South American members of the OAS. Many of them, like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador, are led by leftist or populist leaders who have balked at accepting the dominance of the U.S. in the Americas and pursued policies that often run counter to Washington's wishes.

Apart from Cuba, which has been suspended from the OAS for decades, the U.S. has most differences with Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, reveled in tweaking Washington until his death last March.

At Venezuela's request, Kerry was to meet Wednesday with the Venezuelan foreign minister to discuss possibilities for improving relations, a U.S. official said.

Kerry was expected to raise human rights and democracy concerns in the country, where the opposition was still disputing the narrow results of the election that brought Chavez's successor to power.

Since becoming the top U.S. diplomat in February, Kerry already has traveled more than 100,000 miles to visit 23 countries, but the trip to Guatemala was his first in the Western Hemisphere.

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