A debate that had been billed as a moment of truth for Latin America’s faith in democracy ended in a whimper Thursday as the Organization of American States concluded four hours of talk without deciding whether to intervene in Venezuela’s economic and political crisis.
Despite the lack of a conclusion – the next step was anything but certain – the often emotional statements from the assembled delegates of 34 Western Hemisphere nations made one thing clear: any action on Venezuela will leave the OAS divided between those who favor pressuring the government of President Nicolás Maduro to make accommodations to his opponents and those who believe such a move would violate the country’s sovereignty.
Nicaragua and Bolivia demanded the resignation of OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, whose 132-page indictment of Maduro’s leadership triggered Thursday’s meeting to assess Venezuela’s compliance with the group’s Democratic Charter. Ten others joined those nations in voting to halt the discussion before it had even begun.
“The abusive and surpassing of authority by the secretary-general tramples the charter of the OAS by trying to overthrow a sovereign state,” said Denis Moncada Colindres, Nicaragua’s ambassador.
But another 20 countries voted to go forward, a sign that a majority of the OAS’s member-states, which rarely bring to a vote anything that doesn’t already have a consensus, are increasingly concerned about Venezuela’s worsening economic and political conditions.
That vote allowed Almagro to deliver again a scathing assessment about food shortages, rising inflation, and alarming homicide rates. The presentation alone, coming from Almagro, was progress, said Andres Gonzalez Diaz, the Colombian ambassador.
“What’s important is now the topic has been unveiled,” he said. The move would allow member states to seek action later.
Venezuela could and should be one of the most prosperous countries in the region. Instead, it is a state mired in poverty, corruption and violence.
Luis Almagro, OAS
Maduro’s government had violated the OAS’s requirements for democratic rule by altering the country’s constitutional order, Almagro said. Among the problems was that the government stacked the Supreme Court with biased judges, blocking laws passed by the National Assembly and holding political prisoners.
Venezuelan citizens who struggle to find food and medicine, and who can no longer rely on the government for security. He has demanded “immediate changes” in Venezuela and has called for referendum on Maduro’s recall before the end of the year.
“Venezuela could and should be one of the most prosperous countries in the region,” Almagro said. “Instead, it is a state mired in poverty, corruption and violence.”
Venezuela fired back. Its foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, labeled Almagro a “puppet” of the United States and charged that the OAS was supporting a coup d’etat against a legitimately elected government.
She pointed out that negotiations still are under way between the Venezuelan government and opposition, mediated by former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
“This meeting supposes we’re ignoring dialogue,” Rodríguez said. “In Venezuela, extreme sectors of the opposition have not agreed to meet because they’re just waiting for the charter to be applied.”
The abusive and surpassing of authority by the secretary-general tramples the charter of the OAS by trying to overthrow a sovereign state.
Denis Moncada Colindres, Nicaragua’s OAS ambassador
Ronald Sanders, the ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda, chided members for allowing the vote to happen. The OAS, he said, has strayed from its fundamental purpose of strengthening collaboration and defending each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He pointed out that Venezuela has a democratically elected president and democratically elected assembly.
“What is occurring in Venezuela is a struggle for power between several political factions,” he said. “But as of now there has been no unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime.”
But Michael Fitzpatrick, the U.S. interim OAS representative commended Almagro for addressing democracy in Venezuela. He said the OAS’s examination of the erosion of democracy in Venezuela would complement, not compete with, the work by the former Spanish prime minister.
Prior to the debate, Almagro met with the president of the opposition-led Venezuelan National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, a harsh Maduro critic.
“In Venezuela, the constitution has been violated,” Allup told reporters following the meeting. “In Venezuela, there is no freedom of expression. There is a long list of political prisoners.”
Almagro reminded members that they all signed the Democratic Charter. He urged members to defend its principles and take a stand against holding political prisoners and “persistent reports of torture.”
“Fundamental freedoms and democracy don’t exist just when it’s convenient,” Almagro said.