New Oas Head Pledges Fight Against Racism in Latin America

Jose Miguel Insulza, the Organization of American States’ new secretary-general, vows that under his leadership the group will do all it can to fight xenophobia, racial discrimination, anti-Semitism and terrorism throughout Latin America. “We are all following the AMIA investigation closely,” the Chilean official said, referring to the 1994 bombing of Argentina’s largest Jewish institution, which killed 85 people and injured more than 300.

Insulza, who spoke with JTA in mid-July on the 11th anniversary of the attack, noted that the OAS has been involved in the case since 1998, when Memoria Activa, a group of victims’ relatives, filed a petition with the body’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to force the Argentine government to find those responsible.

In March, the Chilean attorney Claudio Grossman, an observer to the human-rights commission, accused Argentine officials during and since the administration of former President Carlos Menem of intentionally misleading investigators probing the attack, which many believe was the work of Iranian terrorists connected to Hezbollah.

That led President Nestor Kirchner to admit recently that the Argentine government had covered up key elements of the investigation.

“The OAS is cooperating reasonably well on terrorism matters,” said Insulza, who was interviewed at the organization’s Washington headquarters. “Even though we cannot say the hemisphere is free of terrorism, at least we can say that we haven’t had many incidents in the last few years.”

Insulza noted that the Triple Frontier area — where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet — has long been associated with Islamic fundamentalism but added, “I think the dangers posed by the border area have more to do with smuggling and organized crime than terrorism. We’ve given all the data we’ve gathered to the U.S. intelligence agencies, and nothing has really been proven.”

Insulza, 62, was sworn in as the OAS secretary-general May 26. He will serve his five-year term alongside Albert Ramdin, a diplomat from Suriname who was elected assistant secretary-general at last month’s OAS general assembly in Fort Lauderdale.

A member of Chile’s Socialist Party, Insulza has held a number of high-level government posts, ranging from ambassador for international cooperation to minister of foreign affairs. In 2000, President Ricardo Lagos named him vice president and interior minister.

Dina Siegel-Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute at the American Jewish Committee, said Insulza “has been a very close friend” of Chile’s Jewish community, which numbers around 15,000 people.

The AJCommittee “met with him several years ago when he was foreign minister. We’ve always found him receptive to our concerns, and he’s someone who understands the importance of having a strong Jewish community in Chile,” she told JTA.

“If there are violations of human rights in the hemisphere, or if the rights of minorities — not only Jews — are endangered, we should weigh in and push the OAS to take actions to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Siegel-Vann added.

Founded in April 1948, the OAS currently has 34 members. In addition, 46 nations ranging from Azerbaijan to Israel to Yemen have permanent observer status at the OAS, as does the European Union.

Despite “the very dire challenges that it’s facing — not only structurally, but also what’s going on throughout the region — the OAS has an opportunity to act as a catalyst for greater unity and integration within the hemisphere,” Siegel-Vann said. “We hope it will be able to mobilize its resources in order to address the three most important pillars of its work: security, democracy and human rights, and the fight against poverty.”

Asked about anti-Semitism in Chile, Insulza told JTA that as interior minister he played a key role in preventing a neo-Nazi convention from taking place there several years ago. He said he also was instrumental in disbanding Colonia Dignidad, a Nazi-run commune in southern Chile whose leaders sexually abused children and adults.

While there are anti-Semitic incidents in Chile, “the last one was about three years ago, and the time before was three years before that,” Insulza said.

“Just to be fair, you know that in Chile we have the largest Palestinian population in the world outside the Middle East, and we have never had one violent confrontation between Jews and Arabs,” he noted. “There have been racially motivated incidents and swastikas in some synagogues, but I don’t recall any violence in recent years.”

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