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One explanation of how democracy died in Venezuela

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro spoke to oil workers during a demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela, June 22, 2016.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro spoke to oil workers during a demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela, June 22, 2016. AP

The head of the Organization of American States has declared the continued imprisonment of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez the end of democracy in Venezuela.

In an eight-page open letter to Lopez, a former mayor of Caracas, Secretary-General Luis Almagro said Lopez had been the victim of a lying and horrific political system.

“Clearly in Venezuela today there is no fundamental freedom and no civil or political rights,” Almagro wrote in the letter, which was posted to the OAS website Monday.

Almagro’s letter follows a Venezuelan appeals court decision that upheld the nearly 14-year prison sentence handed to Lopez for inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2014.

In Venezuela, there is no democracy or rule of law.

Luis Almagro, OAS secretary-general

It was an extraordinarily passionate denunciation of the Venezuelan government by the head of the United Nations-like organization, whose members include nearly all the nations of the Western Hemisphere, and the latest in what has been an unusually public campaign by the former Uruguayan diplomat against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

While no other Latin American leader has been as outspoken in denouncing what Almagro called the Venezuelan government’s human rights violations and economic malfeasance, his continued use of his position as head of the 34-member organization to deliver ever stronger and more personal rebukes reflects rising concern in the region about Venezuela.

“Those of us who have suffered at the hands of dictators know that trying to eliminate opposition or dissident voices is a true reflection of the ignorance of tyrants,” Almagro wrote.

Earlier this month, a group of 15 countries called on Venezuela to act “without delay” to clear the way for a vote on whether to recall Maduro from office as a way out of a worsening crisis.

The letter was posted the same day Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, said Lopez had received death threats from one of the guards tasked with holding him. An Almagro adviser said the court’s decision, and not the threat, had been the motivation for the remarkably personal letter.

“I must confess that right now I feel close to the injustice that you’re suffering, close to the suffering of all the people of Venezuela,” Almagro wrote.

Almagro chose an open letter to Lopez rather than another report or a statement in an effort to draw new attention to Venezuela’s deteriorating conditions. “It’s his style,” said the adviser, speaking only on the condition of anonymity to discuss Almagro’s thinking. “To be more personal. Not scripted.”

The adviser said Almagro had not consulted OAS members before issuing the letter, though none was likely surprised by its vehemence, considering Almagro’s consistent message that the Maduro government needs to make changes. The adviser cited the refusal of the South American trade organization Mercosur to let Venezuela take its turn at the group’s rotating presidency as a sign of regional concern over the country’s government.

“It’s becoming really difficult for countries to look the other way,” the adviser said. “It’s almost impossible to do that. They have tried to kick the can, but it’s not going anywhere.”

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are expected to cross the border to shop for food and medicine.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has intensified its push for a recall vote against Maduro even as the government has made clear it’s unwilling to allow a referendum that could put the opposition in power. U.S. officials have been seeking ideas in private and public meetings with former officials, research centers and academics across Washington and Miami in an effort to craft a new strategy. Last week, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, convened a meeting of experts in Miami to discuss what might happen in Venezuela.

Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves, yet the country’s economy is crumbling. Food and medicine shortages are rampant, and basic services are in turmoil. Even the oil industry is in a precarious position, with a recent study claiming it’s beset by mismanagement and under-investment.

Maduro has responded to Almagro’s attacks by calling him a “piece of trash” and accusing him of meddling in Venezuelan affairs. Venezuela’s top diplomat in the United States has charged that Almagro has overstepped his authority by acting unilaterally without the support of OAS members.

Rather than silencing peaceful democratic dissent, now is the time for Venezuela’s leaders to listen to diverse voices.

Elizabeth Trudeau, U.S. State Department

Almagro’s open letter is reminiscent of his stark 132-page report in which he described the worsening crisis in Venezuela, demanded “immediate change” and pushed for a recall vote against Maduro.

But the letter is more emotional, addressing Lopez with the familiar form reserved in Spanish for friends and family, though Almagro acknowledges never having laid eyes on Lopez.

Almagro confesses that at first he was unsure whether Lopez qualified as a political prisoner, before he realized the political horrors Lopez had fallen victim to.

Almagro then describes a rotting government he says is fueled by corruption. He cites the controversial arrests of Maduro’s two nephews on federal U.S. drug charges and recordings of them saying they were at war with the United States.

To show he is not alone in his thinking, Almagro mentions criticism of Venezuela by the United Nations and European Parliament over human rights concerns.

“In Venezuela there is no democracy or rule of law,” Almagro wrote.

The United States has stood behind Almagro, a former Uruguayan foreign minister. Last week, the State Department blasted the Venezuelan government for failing to guarantee the rights of Lopez and other political prisoners.

“Rather than silencing peaceful democratic dissent, now is the time for Venezuela’s leaders to listen to diverse voices and work together to find solutions to the political, social and economic challenges facing the Venezuelan people,” said Elizabeth Trudeau, a State Department spokeswoman.

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