Opinion

Commentary: OAS too silent about Venezuela and Ledezma

An unidentified woman talks to Jonis Rivas, center, a municipal worker who holds a hunger strike in front of the OAS, headquarters in Caracas, Tuesday, July 7, 2009. The strike was organized in support of Caracas' opposition Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is also in hunger strike since Friday.
An unidentified woman talks to Jonis Rivas, center, a municipal worker who holds a hunger strike in front of the OAS, headquarters in Caracas, Tuesday, July 7, 2009. The strike was organized in support of Caracas' opposition Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is also in hunger strike since Friday. ASSOCIATED PRESS

While the Organization of American States is rightly denouncing the coup against ousted President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, there are growing questions about why it hasn't said a word about the coup against Antonio Ledezma in Venezuela.

Ledezma, you may recall, is the opposition mayor of Venezuela's capital, Caracas, who was elected by a landslide in November 2008. Yet after his victory, President Hugo Chavez effectively ignored the election results by creating a position of "super-mayor" of Caracas, appointing a loyalist to the new job and stripping Ledezma of his offices and the bulk of his budget.

In a telephone interview from the San Román Clinic in Caracas, where he was recovering from a six-day hunger strike to draw international attention to his case, Ledezma told me that while the 34-country OAS acted decisively to demand the restoration of the rule of law in Honduras, it has not lifted a finger to demand the same thing in Venezuela.

Here is Ledezma's story. When he took office Dec. 7, Ledezma found out that most of his office's funds had been transferred to other government agencies. Then, on Dec. 29, government-backed mobs started occupying various city offices. On Jan. 17, a pro-Chávez mob took over the Caracas City Hall, including the mayor's offices.

Shortly thereafter, the Chávez-run Congress created the job of Caracas "head of government," and Chávez appointed a non-elected loyalist to the new position.

"They took away 93 percent of my budget, and my ability to collect taxes," Ledezma told me. "We had 22,000 active employees, and now we are left with about 6,000."

Strangled for cash, Ledezma soon found himself unable to pay city employees' salaries. When his bids to recover his city budget were rejected by Chávez-controlled courts, he walked into the OAS offices in Caracas on July 3, and started a hunger strike.

Ledezma demanded among other things that OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza meet with a delegation of Venezuelan opposition mayors and governors. In addition to Ledezma, the opposition governors of the states of Zulia (Venezuela's main oil center), Miranda and Tachira, among others, have been stripped of their jurisdiction over seaports, airports and highways, which are their main sources of funding.

Ledezma, who called off his hunger strike on Thursday after several talks with Insulza, told me that the OAS chief has agreed to talk with the opposition delegation later this month. They will ask that the OAS raise its voice for democracy not only when there is a coup against a president, as happened in Honduras, but also when presidents carry out coups against other elected officials.

"The OAS Democratic Charter needs new regulations, so that the institution doesn't become a mutual protection club for presidents who don't respect the rule of law," Ledezma told me. "Provincial and municipal governments are Venezuelan state institutions."

Is Insulza turning a blind eye on transgressions by authoritarian presidents? Is he doing that because he needs their votes to win a new term as OAS leader, as some of his critics claim?

In an interview earlier last week, Insulza rejected these allegations. He told me that he can only act within existing OAS rules, and the Democratic Charter only allows countries' presidents to convene the group to examine breaches of the rule of law.

"It would be a good idea to allow other state institutions to also have a way of reaching [the OAS] and be able to present their grievances," Insulza said. "But that's something that member states would have to approve."

Insulza reminded me that he himself made a proposal to that effect two years ago, and it was not accepted by member countries. As for whether he will propose it again now, he answered, "I could, but I'm not going to do it at a time of crisis [in Honduras]."

My Opinion: That shouldn't be an excuse. Insulza should resubmit his proposal precisely now, to prevent new political crises such as that in Honduras. Zelaya had disavowed the Supreme Court and the attorney general before he was thrown out of office.

It's ridiculous to see Chávez and his friends make fiery speeches in support of democracy in Honduras, when they themselves are killing it daily in their home countries. If the OAS doesn't expand its Democratic Charter, Latin America will be increasingly more authoritarian, and the OAS will become – like Ledezma said – a mutual protection club for power-hungry presidents.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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