On this lunchtime bike ride I rode to the headquarters for the Organization of American States (OAS), known as the Pan American Union Building, which is just off of Pennsylvania Avenue and across the street from The Ellipse, at 200 17th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
The OAS is an inter-continental organization which was founded in April of 1948 by the United States and 20 Latin American countries. Officially, the organization was established in order to achieve among its member states – as stipulated in Article 1 of its Charter – “an order of peace and justice, to promote their solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence.”
Unofficially, however, the reasons for its formation were somewhat different than the charter’s stated intent. The Latin American member states wanted a political institution to deal with intra-hemispheric disputes based on their fears that the United States, intent on its anticommunist crusade at that time, might engage in unilateral interventions against Latin American governments. For the United States, it was intended to serve as a protection against communist penetration of the Western Hemisphere.
The United States insisted that the charter include a statement condemning “international communism or any totalitarianism” as “irreconcilable with the tradition of the American countries.” For the Latin American delegates, the key article of the OAS charter stated 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.”
The OAS has had some successes, including settling border conflicts between various member countries, such as the truce and subsequent resolution of the Soccer War between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969. However, in generally it never actually functioned as any of the member states had intended, and neither side got what it had hoped for when it was formed.
The OAS proved a disappointment to the United States because the other member states did not share its own Cold War zeal against communism. This was evidenced by the organization’s refusal to approve direct action to remove what the United States felt were “communist threats,” most notably in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. For the other member states, disappointment in the OAS centered around the organization’s failure to curb the United States use of unilateral force in other situations, such as the U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of the government of Guatemala in 1954, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, and its intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965.
The OAS has grown over the years to a total of 35 countries, and now includes Canada and 14 additional independent countries in the Caribbean. However, since the end of the Cold War, the OAS’s importance in intra-hemispheric affairs has continued to diminish.
The OAS’s original charter members, listed in alphabetical order, were Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Countries that were subsequently admitted, in chronological order of when they became a member, are Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Grenada, Suriname, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Bahamas, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Canada, Belize, and most recently, Guyana, which was admitted in 1991.