Its purposes, according to its official charter, are "to strengthen the peace and security of the continent; to promote and consolidate representative democracy, with due respect for the principle of non-intervention; to seek the solution of political, juridical, and economic problems... ; [and] to eradicate extreme poverty", among others. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., since its founding, in 2007 the OAS counted 35 member states, with Cuba suspended from participation since 1962, making 34 active member states.
Mirroring the organizational structures of the United Nations, the OAS is governed by a General Assembly and Permanent Council and led by a secretary-general elected every five years.
It has numerous affiliated organizations, organs, and entities, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, f. 1959); the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD, f. 1968); Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism (CICTE, f. 1999); and many others.
Four "Protocols" introduced major revisions to the original OAS Bogotá Charter: the Protocols of Buenos Aires (1967), Cartagena de Indias (1985), Washington (1992), and Managua (1993). In 1994 the OAS organized the first Summit of the Americas, an event henceforth held every few years.
Since its founding, the OAS has been dominated by the United States. During the the cold war era, its overriding concern was limiting Soviet and communist influence in the Western Hemisphere.
Because Marxist, communist, and socialist doctrines proved popular in many parts of Latin America in the postwar era, OAS member states could pursue one of three options: openly defy the United States and adopt a socialist or Marxist-oriented government; ally with the United States in its anticommunist policies; or pursue a "third way" by aligning with neither the Soviet nor the U.S. bloc.
In a handful of instances, OAS member states openly defied the United States, such as in Guatemala (1944–54), Bolivia (1952–64), Cuba (1961– ), Chile (1970–73), Nicaragua (1979–90), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and Venezuela (1999– ).
In these and other cases, the United States violated the OAS charter regarding nonintervention, which stipulated that "No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State" (Chapter IV, Article 19). More often, OAS member states cooperated with U.S. anticommunist efforts or sought to pursue a nonaligned stance in international affairs.
The United States most commonly interpreted the latter as alignment with international communism and therefore a direct threat to its national security. In the post–cold war era, the OAS has exerted a greater degree of autonomy from U.S. domination.