OAS members include South American giants, Caribbean islands
The Organization of American States, or OAS, aims to foster democracy, security, human rights and economic integration among its members.
It includes all the countries of the Americas except Cuba - which was suspended in 1962 because of its Marxist-Leninist political system - and Honduras.
In 2009, the OAS voted to lift Cuba's suspension. Cuba welcomed the decision, but declined to rejoin. Honduras was suspended from the OAS in July 2009 after a military coup.
Formed in 1948, partly in response to a perceived threat from international communism, the OAS succeeded the Pan-American Union, a body founded in 1890. Its early preoccupations were security-related; the OAS held that an attack on one member would be considered as an attack upon all.
The OAS has mediated in border disputes between its members, and has also attempted to calm down other disputes such as the long-standing diplomatic rift between Colombia and Venezuela.
Though the organisation did little to counter military dictatorships in Central and South America in the 1970s and 1980s, in recent years democracy and development have become driving principles.
Of late, one of its main tasks has been to monitor elections, including those in the unstable Caribbean nation of Haiti.
OAS heads of state and government meet at the high-profile Summit of the Americas, a periodic gathering held to address the challenges facing Western Hemisphere nations. Recent gatherings have discussed economic growth, social development and environmental issues.
- Founded: 1948, in Bogota, Colombia
- Active members: 34 states in North, Central and Latin America and the Caribbean (Cuba has been suspended since 1962, Honduras was suspended in 2009)
- Headquarters: Washington DC, USA
- Official languages: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish
- Budget: US$84.4 million (for 2005)
Secretary-general: Jose Miguel Insulza
Former Chilean foreign minister Jose Miguel Insulza was elected unopposed in May 2005 after his rival, Mexico's Luis Ernesto Derbez, pulled out of the race to lead the organisation.
Chile's Jose Miguel Insulza
The OAS had been deadlocked over the choice of a leader since October 2004, with rounds of voting for the US-backed Mr Derbez and Mr Insulza resulting in dead heats.
Mr Insulza said his main focus would be to protect and promote democracy.
The previous OAS secretary-general, Costa Rica's Miguel Angel Rodriguez, resigned over corruption allegations in his home country just two weeks into his five-year term.
- General Assembly: Goals and policies are decided at this annual meeting of OAS foreign ministers, which also oversees the OAS budget.
- Permanent Council: The Washington-based body is made up of ambassadors of member states. It oversees relations between members and ties with other international bodies.
- General Secretariat: The Washington-based administrative body is headed by the secretary-general.
The ideal of inter-American cooperation is dogged by rifts between some Latin American countries and the US over economic policy and trade.
Moves to set up a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) have been stalled since 2005, and with several major South American countries having moved to the political left in recent years, it seems unlikely that plans for an FTAA will reach fruition in the near future.
Poverty reduction and development remain major challenges for a number of the organisation's member states. The OAS drew up an action plan in 1994, but former OAS head Miguel Angel Rodriguez noted in 2004 that poverty and hunger remained "bitter daily life" for millions of OAS citizens.
The OAS has been accused by some of being ineffective, and of promoting US interests above those of other members.
Colombia's close alliance with the US - strengthened in 2009 by a deal allowing the US military access to Colombian bases - has increased other more left-leaning South American countries' suspicion of the OAS.
The Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has condemned the organisation as a puppet of the US - which he has accused of attempting to "colonise" the region - and is one of the most vociferous advocates of its replacement by a new regional body excluding North America.
A summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders held in Mexico in February 2010 agreed to work towards setting up a replacement organisation.