National Security

Venezuela debate: Latin America’s moment of truth

People line up inside of a school set up as a validation center to certify the authenticity of their signatures in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday, June 20, 2016. Venezuela starts a crucial stage in the possible recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro with the validation of 1.3 million signatures supporting the referendum.
People line up inside of a school set up as a validation center to certify the authenticity of their signatures in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday, June 20, 2016. Venezuela starts a crucial stage in the possible recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro with the validation of 1.3 million signatures supporting the referendum. AP

The Organization of American States first took steps 15 years ago to make sure that democratically elected government survived in the Western Hemisphere after decades of rule by military governments.

Now members of that organization are being called on to explain what democracy means to them and how far they’re willing to go to defend those ideals.

On Thursday, the OAS will debate whether the embattled Venezuelan government is truly democratic after OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro invoked the group’s Democratic Charter, the document the organization approved in 2001 to ensure that the hemisphere’s elected governments never again would be subject to military coups. If the OAS determines that Venezuela has violated the charter, it could be suspended from the 34-nation group.

It’s a rare event for the United Nations-like organization that typically has resisted meddling in other governments’ affairs.

Only once has the OAS suspended a country from the organization since the Democratic Charter was drafted. The OAS temporarily suspended Honduras after a 2009 military coup overthrew President Manuel Zelaya. Cuba also was suspended, but that action came in 1962, four decades before the Democratic Charter.

Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is on the verge of economic collapse. Food riots broke out this month as desperate Venezuelans ransacked grocery stores in search of food. Children have died due to an 80 percent shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions seeking a referendum to remove President Nicolás Maduro from office.

Almagro charges that Venezuela government must be held accountable for human rights violations, blocking the democratically elected National Assembly from carrying out its role and jailing political prisoners. He demanded Maduro allow a referendum by the end of the year, which could end his term in office.

In his scathing 132-page report on the crisis (it runs 114 pages in English), Almagro pressed OAS members to act, quoting retired South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

In his report, Almagro accuses the Maduro administration of a litany of undemocratic actions involving the separation of powers and judicial independence. He accused the government of packing the Supreme Court with party loyalists before a new opposition-led National Assembly took over. He cited 17 Supreme Court decisions that he said undercut the results of elections last December, including the suspension of four members that denied the opposition a super majority in the chamber adn the blocking of a law that would have freed nearly 80 political prisoners.

Almagro also accused the Maduro government of failing to respond properly to the country’s growing humanitarian crisis. He said poverty grew 76 percent last year, and claimed that the average Venezuelan must visit five stores and wait in line nearly five hours to get food. A quarter of the population survives on less than three meals a day, he said.

Hospital patients, including children, have died due to a lack of medicine. In areas such as oncology, the drug shortage is estimated to be around 65 percent.

The government also has failed to curb an alarming rise in homicides, with nearly 18,000 killed in 2015, according to Almagro’s report. Criminal gangs operate in some cities with “total impunity,” he said. Since Jan. 1, he said, more than 109 members of the police and security forces have been killed, he reported.

Venezuela has sought to outmaneuver the secretary-general, leaning on allies to block and weaken any punitive measure. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez called his efforts illegal and part of a U.S.-led coup d’etat to overthrow the government.

On Tuesday, she told OAS members that the problems of her country have been exaggerated and that they are no different from the challenges that low prices have coused in other oil-producing countries.

For years, Venezuela has exercised disproportionate influence in the OAS, largely because many members receive subsidized oil under Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program, which was begun by the late President Hugo Chavez. Maduro, a former Chavez foreign minister, has threatened that nations that oppose him could “go dry.” But as oil prices plummeted, the Petrocaribe has program weakened.

All it did was give the Cuban government a way to show how the ‘imperialist’ United States was punishing it.

Gregory Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist

What ends up happening on Thursday will likely come down to who has the most leverage, said Roger Noriega, who was appointed U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States by President George W. Bush and also has served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

“Can Venezuela sort of stiff arm this kind of involvement, or have enough governments been convinced that if we don’t deal with this in a responsible way, we’re going to share in some of the blame for what happens in Venezuela,” said Noriega, now a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a research center.

While invoking the Democratic Charter could lead to Venezuela’s suspension, that scenario is unlikely. But Noriega and others said the group could draft a resolution recognizing the crisis, offer OAS support and call for a recall referendum.

The OAS doesn’t really have many other stronger tools for enforcement, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas. It has no military or police force. It can kick Venezuela out, but that could lead to even greater isolation.

Of countries in the Western Hemisphere, only Cuba does not send an ambassador or participate in the group’s debates. It was suspended in 1962 and though the OAS agreed to consider taking it back in 2009, the Cuban government has refused to join.

“All it did was give the Cuban government a way to show how the ‘imperialist’ United States was punishing it,” Gregory Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, said of Cuba’s suspension. “And I think if the OAS suspended Venezuela, Maduro would at least try to do the same.”

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