THE Organisation of American States is one of the least-known of regional institutions. It was founded in 1948 to promote peace and development in the Americas and in 1961 adopted President Kennedy's plan for economic assistance known as the Alliance for Progress. Since then, however, the Organisation has languished as a significant force; yet, with the exception of Cuba, it brings together all the nations of South, Central and North America - among them potential economic power-houses such as Brazil. The Summit of the Americas, held in Mexico earlier this week, was an attempt by the United States to breathe new life into the association, especially by expanding the existing Nafta free-trade area, which currently comprises Canada, Mexico and the United States, to cover the whole region. This met considerable hostility and little was achieved. Only Canada and Mexico left the summit satisfied; for both, fences were mended after their refusal to support the Iraq war and Canada was promised the opportunity to bid for contracts in Iraq while Mexico was grateful for the president's scheme to make the lot of Mexican immigrants in the United States slightly more acceptable.
The most pointed criticism of US policy came from Brazil's new leftwing president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who said that America's free-market policies had made the 1990s a decade of despair for Latin America. He described these policies as a perverse model which fuelled poverty and ignored social responsibility. Venezuela's controversial president, Hugo Chavez, went further, calling the existing global economic system an infernal machine that produces more poor people every minute. President Bush is not accustomed to hearing such criticism at first hand but he should know that these voices from Latin America speak also for much of the Third World.