Inter-American System

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Inter-American System

The Inter-American System originated with the First International Conference of American States (Washington, D.C., 1889), which established the International Union of American Republics and the Commercial Bureau of the American Republics in Washington, D.C. This effort built on the unsuccessful series of international "Americanismo" and Pan-Americanism-driven congresses, which tried to form a Spanish American union, beginning with the Panama Congress of 1826 and ending with the Second Lima Congress of 1865. Parallel endeavors for regional cooperation were the international law conferences held from 1887 to 1889. Such attempts were unsuccessful until, with encouragement of the United States, the American republics managed to place their hopes for political cooperation in a union governed by the rule of international law. The principal missions of the Inter-American System have included the maintenance and guarantee of peaceful relations and the nonviolent resolution of conflicts, security, and development. Its initial mandate was the establishment of the rule of international law to replace the rule of force in inter-American relations.

Representatives of American nations attended a series of conferences that created the treaties, conventions, and legal instruments upon which the multilateral cooperation between those nations is based. The conferences included eleven International Conferences of American States, thirteen Meetings of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, eight Special Inter-American Conferences, and dozens of specialized conferences that focused on particular areas of concern from agriculture to public health.

The first International Conference of American States, held in Washington, D.C., from 1889 to 1890 bore fruit in 1910 in the form of the Pan-American Union, which served as the permanent secretariat for the Pan-American conferences and, after 1948, for the Organization of American States (OAS). After 1890 the International Conferences of American States met every five years except during the two world wars. The Second International Conference of American States (Mexico City, 1901) adopted a protocol of adherence to the conventions framed by the First Hague Peace Conference in 1899. The Third International Conference (Rio de Janeiro, 1906) set conventions regarding copyright law, commercial arbitration, and international law, a process continued by the Fourth (Buenos Aires, 1910), which established conventions related to patents, artistic property, and commercial statistics, and set standards for the Pan-American railroad. The Fifth Conference (Santiago, 1923) adopted the Gondra Treaty to avoid conflicts between American states and approved the formation of the Pan-American Highway system. The Sixth Conference (Havana, 1928) approved conventions on political asylum, maritime neutrality, private international law (the Bustamante Code), extradition, and the duties of states in the event of civil strife.

The three conferences in the 1930s as well as the first three Meetings of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs (1939, 1940, 1942) responded to U.S. concerns about the increasing likelihood of war in Europe, the need to guarantee inter-American cooperation in that event, and U.S. and Latin American participation in the war effort. In 1933, the Seventh International Conference of American States (Montevideo) adopted the Convention of the Rights and Duties of States. Article VII of the Convention established that "no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another." This Convention drew on the Calvo and Drago doctrines of nonintervention. The 1936 Special Conference for the Maintenance of Peace (also known as the Buenos Aires Conference) established procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes in the event of an international war outside the hemisphere, and the Eighth International Conference (Lima, 1938) created the mechanism for meetings of consultation of ministers of foreign affairs.

The Special Inter-American Conference on the Problems of War and Peace (Mexico City, 1945) created the Inter-American Economic and Social Council and adopted the Act of Chapultepec, which declared that an act of aggression against any of the American states would be considered aggression against them all. The Special Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Continental Peace and Security (Rio de Janeiro, 1947) established principles for collective defense in the form of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, or Rio Treaty, that served as the basis for security arrangements in the Americas for the next forty years. The Ninth Conference (Bogotá, 1948) approved the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS), the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and conventions granting civil and political rights to women. The Tenth Inter-American Conference (Caracas, 1954) approved the creation of the economic, social, and cultural development programs of the OAS and adopted conventions on territorial and diplomatic asylum. In 1959, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) was established to promote economic development, following suggestions offered by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and its executive secretary, Raúl Prebisch. At the Fifth Meeting of Consultation (Santiago, 1959) the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was created. During the meeting of American chiefs of state (Punta del Este, Uruguay, 1961), the Declaration to the Peoples of the Americas and the Charter of Punta del Este, creating the Alliance for Progress, were adopted.

Economic cooperation was soon overshadowed by the tension caused by the cold war, which climaxed with the 1962 expulsion of the government of Cuba from the OAS. Cuba's ouster was based on the understanding that "the adherence by any member of the Organization of American States to marxism-leninism is incompatible with the Inter-American System." Following the 1964 intervention by the United States in the Dominican Republic, the OAS created the Inter-American Peace Force, which helped end the fighting in that country and allowed elections in order to reestablish a constitutional government.

After 1970, in accordance with the 1967 revision of the OAS Charter, the International Conferences of American States were replaced by annual meetings of the General Assembly of the OAS. In the ensuing years, the OAS met to condemn and respond to various security-related incidents, including Cuban aggression against Venezuela, Bolivia, and other American states; the armed conflict between El Salvador and Honduras; the clash between Nicaragua and Costa Rica in 1978; the Nicaraguan crisis that ended with the triumph of the Sandinistas in 1979; the Peruvian-Ecuadorian clashes of 1981; and the Falklands/Malvinas War between Argentina and Great Britain in 1982. This last event threatened to undermine the Inter-American System because the United States supported the British venture to regain the islands, despite the Latin American perception that Great Britain was an extracontinental aggressor as defined by the Rio Treaty. The U.S. invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989 further weakened the cohesion of the Inter-American System, but the return to democratic rule in every American republic except Peru revived the OAS.

The future of the Inter-American System in the post-cold war era of economic integration and competition is contingent on the continued cooperation of all the hemisphere's nations. The integration efforts of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Chile are being followed with great interest by the rest of the hemisphere, given the lack of success of such subregional efforts as the Central American Common Market and the Andean Pact. In 1994 the OAS proposed the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) to be implemented by 2005. Because of political pressures in Latin America and in the United States, FTAA as of 2007 still remains an unfinished policy. Cooperation continues on other matters, including health issues (for example, AIDS and cholera), resource development and management, energy security, environmental protection, narco-trafficking and violence, and nuclear proliferation. Democracy has become a central policy of the OAS. In 2001 the OAS approved the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which aimed to develop democratic institutions in the region. The charter was invoked in 2002 to condemn the temporary removal of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

The most important Pan-American conferences are treated in individual articles elsewhere in this encyclopedia, under the title "Pan-American Conferences."

See alsoPan-American Conferences; United Nations.


Pan American Union, The Pan American Union and the Pan American Conferences (1940).

Francisco Cuevas Cancino, Del Congreso de Panamá a la Conference de Caracas, 1826–1954 (1955).

John D. Martz and Lars Schoultz, eds., Latin America, the United States, and the Inter-American System (1980).

L. Ronald Scheman, The Inter-American Dilemma: The Search for Inter-American Cooperation at the Centennial of the Inter-American System (1988); and, especially, G. Pope Atkins, Latin America in the International Political System, 2d rev. ed. (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Bouvier, Virginia Marie. The Globalization of U.S.-Latin American Relations: Democracy, Intervention, and Human Rights. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Cooper, Andrew Fenton, and Thomas Legler. Intervention without Intervening? The OAS Defense and Promotion of Democracy in the Americas. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Marichal, Carlos, ed. México y las conferencias panamericanas, 1889–1938: Antecedentes de la globalización. Mexico: Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, 2002.

Shaw, Carolyn M. Cooperation, Conflict, and Consensus in the Organization of American States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Sheinin, David. Beyond the Ideal: Pan Americanism in Inter-American Affairs. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

                                       Michael Gold-Biss

                                    James Patrick Kiernan

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