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Members’ need for oil undercuts OAS push to monitor Venezuela vote

Eulogio del Pino, president of the Petróleos de Venezuela SA, addresses Organization of American States on benefits of Petrocaribe oil subsidies program. Washington, D.C. Nov. 19, 2015
Eulogio del Pino, president of the Petróleos de Venezuela SA, addresses Organization of American States on benefits of Petrocaribe oil subsidies program. Washington, D.C. Nov. 19, 2015 Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

One by one Caribbean and Central American diplomats on Thursday took the floor at the Organization of American States to praise Venezuela for its subsidized oil export program. The effusive remarks demonstrated the challenge the OAS faces as it seeks to build pressure on Venezuela to open up its elections next month to international monitors.

A week after the OAS secretary general blasted Venezuelan authorities for failing to ensure fair elections in December, the president of another OAS body, the permanent council, who happens to be the Venezuelan ambassador, invited a colleague to speak about Petrocaribe, the Venezuelan energy program that several OAS members depend on.

Venezuela has distributed as much as $50 billion in subsidized oil over the past decade to help win allies across the Caribbean and Central America.

Eulogio del Pino, president of the Petróleos de Venezuela SA, the state energy giant, said he appreciated the opportunity to tout the benefits of the program that provides billions in oil subsidies. He said he wanted to defend it against “attacks” and “lies” that it was simply a vehicle of political influence.

But he also joked about familiar faces in the council and noted that more than half, 19 members, of the OAS are also part of Petrocaribe.

“I feel like I’m at a board of directors meetings of Petrocaribe with additional members of OAS,” he said.

A dozen ambassadors from across the Caribbean and Central America spoke out in support following the talk. Several described former president Hugo Chavez as visionary for developing the program and thanked current president Nicolás Maduro for continuing it.

El Salvador said the program allowed the government to focus more resources in needed areas such as access to food. The ambassador of Saint Kitts and Nevis said the program has helped reduce public debt. The ambassador of Guyana said Petrocaribe is worth replicating.

“What we hear is a living testament of the commitment to address poverty and inequality in the region,” said Diego Pary, the Bolivian ambassador.

Last week, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro wrote a 19-page letter to Venezuealan authorities, urging them to open up the elections to international monitoring. Critics argue that the Maduro administration is trying to influence the Dec. 6 parliamentary elections. Polls indicate that Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela could lose control of the Parliament.

But Thursday’s praise by many OAS members shows the influence Venezuela continues to hold. In 2014, after a wave of government protests in Venezuela turned violent, the OAS considered intervention. But 29 member-states instead voted for continued dialogue, which some saw as a validation of Maduro’s response to the protest. Only the United States, Canada and Panama voted against the joint statement.

The Obama administration placed sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, including a high-profile prosecutor, for their alleged human rights violations during the crackdown on last year's protests, which were blamed for more than 40 deaths.

In April, President Barack Obama traveled to Jamaica to unveil a clean energy partnership at a Caribbean summit that would help diversify energy resources – and therefore reduce reliance on Venezuelan oil.

On Thursday, Michael Fitzpatrick, the U.S.’s interim permanent representative, broached the Petrocaribe debate gingerly.

He said the United States recognized the challenges that Caribbean nations face due to their high energy costs, but that it was important to phase out fossil fuel subsidies that “hamper the growth of nascent renewable energy industries.”

“We recognize that energy transformation will depend on the particular needs of each country,” he said. “And as we all know, public finance alone cannot drive this effort.”

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