Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Latin America for the first time since taking office, leading the U.S. delegation to a 35-nation organization he once disparaged as ineffective and nearly irrelevant.
Kerry departs Tuesday for Guatemala, where he will attend the Organization of American States' annual general assembly. Counternarcotics and counterterrorism strategy, as well as human rights throughout the Western Hemisphere, are expected to be main topics of discussion.
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. The State Department said Monday that Kerry believes the bloc is an organization of critical importance to the Americas and that his participation in the two-day meeting in Guatemala is 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 administration's commitment to improving the OAS, she said.
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.
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 will be his first in the Western Hemisphere.