Professor Miguel Angel Rodriguez is vying for the top spot in the Organization of American States, calling for increased human rights in the Western Hemisphere.
Rodriguez, the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Shapiro visiting professor and former president of Costa Rica, said while states have made significant inroads against tyranny in recent years, there are many human rights issues that still need to be addressed.
“We have had tremendous progress in the last few years,” he said. “There is no doubt that we have very important things to improve – rights of women, children and minorities.”
Composed of states located in the Western Hemisphere, OAS seeks to diffuse international crises and foster democracy throughout the world.
“Twenty years ago there were three, four governments that were democratic in Latin America,” Rodriguez said. Now, all North and South American countries – aside from Cuba, which is no longer a member of OAS – are democratic.
If elected, Rodriguez would serve a five-year term as OAS secretary general. He said he would urge the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which currently meet infrequently, to hold meetings more regularly.
Rodriguez is the only official candidate thus far for the OAS election, which is scheduled to take place June 5.
If Rodriguez wins the election, he would face an “egregious” human rights problem in war-torn Columbia and problems in forging free trade agreements among South American countries, said professor Cynthia McClintock, an expert in Latin American politics.
“The challenge for him would be to maintain the cordial overall relationships between the states,” McClintock said.
As president of Costa Rica from 1998 to 2002, Rodriguez said his biggest successes were improving Costa Rica’s economic policy and human rights laws.
One of his greatest achievements, he said, was passing a law that made it easier for single mothers to legally declare a biological father. Rodriguez said the law almost immediately decreased the rate of children born in Costa Rica without fathers from 31 percent to 8 percent.
“There’s nothing here that is similar to it. It’s pioneer to the world,” Rodriguez said of the law.
Rodriguez said he also worked to improve pensions and help set up several free trade agreements. He started initiatives to improve health care in his country and saw Costa Rica’s life expectancy rates rival those of Canada and the United States.
Asked about Rodriguez’s chances of being elected, the current secretary general, Cesar Gaviria, said it would be unethical to comment on an upcoming election.
Rodriguez said he feels his political and private history makes him a good candidate for secretary general.
After receiving a law degree in Costa Rica and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, Rodriguez spent four years as minister of planning for Costa Rican President Jose Trejos Fernandez. He then worked in the agriculture business, processing cows, melons and rice. During that time he also taught economics at the University of Costa Rica until he was elected president in 1998.
In fall 2002, the Elliott School named Rodriguez its Shapiro professor, a position reserved for people who have extensive experience in international affairs.
Rodriguez teaches two courses, one on trade and development in Latin America and another on human rights in the Western Hemisphere.
Hugh Agnew, ESIA associate dean for Curriculum and Student Affairs, praised Rodriguez for his teaching skills and said he was proud that GW was able to hire a former president for one of its most prestigious professorships.
“We want to create a setting at the Elliott School where we can bring together the best of theoretical scholarly study and practical application,” he said.
Rodriguez, who is in his last year as Shapiro professor, may be asked to return to the school as a guest lecturer, but Agnew said he doe not “expect to have him back here as a regular professor.”
Whether or not he wins the June election, Rodriguez said he plans to dedicate the rest of his life to advocating on behalf of human rights, noting, “I think that being dedicated to the respect of human dignity, that’s something that you can do in any position in life.”