This week, after three and a half years of diplomatic service in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Guillermo Cochez (pictured on the right) left his post as Panama's permanent representative to the Organization of American States (OAS). He was dismissed from his job by President Ricardo Martinelli for critical statements he made about the indefinite postponement of President Chávez's inauguration in Venezuela. Cochez's departure is a loss for the OAS. His voice will be sorely missed by those suffering under Latin American governments that have systematically eroded democracy and human rights.
Promoting democratic values and safeguarding human rights are supposed to be two of the pre-eminent goals of the OAS. They're explicitly defined as such in Article 2 of the OAS Charter as well as Articles 3, 4, and 7 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Over the years, of course, both right-wing and left-wing dictators have done their best to subvert OAS monitoring mechanisms. While the conservative caudillos have faded away with time and the Cuban dictatorship has not been a member since 1962, a more recent group of leftist "soft authoritarians" such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega has been pushing to water down respect for human rights among the 34 members of the OAS.
Yet along the way, Cochez -- a Panamanian Christian Democrat with a 40-year career who first made his name opposing the military dictatorship in his home country -- has stood out as one of the few diplomats who has been unafraid to take seriously the OAS mandate to safeguard democratic freedoms throughout Latin America.
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Cochez didn't need long to start speaking his mind. Soon after he assumed his duties in July 2009, he found himself attending an OAS Permanent Council meeting in December 2009 where his Venezuelan counterpart accused Globovisión -- the only remaining critical TV channel in Venezuela -- of leading a "media dictatorship." Taking the floor, Cochez caustically responded that "there is no bigger media dictatorship than that which imposes upon its people, through mandatory nation-wide TV broadcast, that they listen to speeches by its president [Chávez] for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve and sometimes even thirteen hours on the same day."
That first encounter would set the tone for Ambassador Cochez's work at the OAS for the next three years.
Through his tenure, Cochez was particularly notable as the only Latin American diplomat who dared to challenge the legitimacy of the Cuban government -- a single-party dictatorship which for decades has officially labeled any human rights defenders as "worms" or "mercenaries."
In October 2011, Cochez took the OAS floor to express condolences for the passing of Laura Pollán, leader of Cuba's Ladies In White (a civil society group inside Cuba that organizes peaceful Sunday marches for freedom and human rights). This gesture was seconded only by the United States. Later, in July 2012, Cochez was the only OAS diplomat to say a single word regarding the death of leading Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who had just died in a mysterious car accident in Cuba.