Is the OAS Playing a Constructive Role on Venezuela? What Should It Be Doing Differently?

SG Almagro

Updated: June 18, 02:15 p.m. EDT

Responses by:
David Smilde, Tulane University and Washington Office on Latin America
Miguel Tinker Salas, Pomona College
Jennifer McCoy, Georgia State University
Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic and Policy Research
Steve Ellner, Latin American Perspectives

Has Invocation of the OAS Democratic Charter had a Positive Impact on Venezuela’s Political Process?

David Smilde
Tulane University
Washington Office on Latin America

Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro has played a crucial role in prompting international attention to the Venezuela crisis. I think his invocation of the Democratic Charter could have been done in a more diplomatic way and with a different time frame. However, I think it has been a net positive in generating international attention to a rapidly deteriorating situation in Venezuela.

In my view it is entirely legitimate for Almagro to have invoked the Democratic Charter with respect to Venezuela. However, I felt he did it about a year too soon. In June 2016, the process leading to a recall referendum was in full swing and there were even suggestions of dialogue. In this context, it was predictable that Almagro’s initiative would not garner the support it needed to succeed. There had not been a clear rupture of democracy at that point in time. Furthermore, Almagro had not done the diplomatic work necessary with the ambassadors of member-states to put together a coalition.

His second effort ten months later came at a much more appropriate moment. The Maduro government had postponed the recall referendum on the most specious of reasons and had made a mockery of the Vatican-facilitated dialogue. However, here again, he rushed ahead and went straight for the jugular—the expulsion of Venezuela. Rather than proposing that the OAS carry out a period of “good offices” as the Democratic Charter calls for, he regarded the UNASUR-Vatican led efforts as functional equivalents of these good offices. While it was predictable that this particular effort would fail, this time around Almagro’s initiative generated a more robust discussion and more support. Nevertheless it did not gain the votes needed to proceed.

But multilateral discussions themselves create new realities. Member countries are forced to get up-to-date on the situation in Venezuela, take positions, and develop common understandings. Thus when Venezuela’s Supreme Justice Tribunal, less than 48 hours after the OAS meeting ended, put forward sentences XYZ, it led to an immediate international outcry. This led to the first public division within Chavismo in years, with the Attorney General Luisa Ortega expressing strong disapproval of the TSJ ruling. These two factors emboldened an opposition that had been in disarray for months after the failed effort to mount a presidential recall, with their followers disillusioned and demobilized. Suddenly many Venezuelans felt the world was listening to them and they have not stopped street mobilizations since.

Thus I think that despite a rather undiplomatic and precipitous effort on the part of SG Luis Almagro, the OAS Democratic Charter has been a useful spark to both international pressure on and engagement of Venezuela and domestic mobilization against a clear authoritarian slide in the Maduro administration. The meeting on May 31 will likely have a similar function. Even if there is not a two-thirds majority supporting action with respect to Venezuela, these conversations could funnel into some sort of “group of friends” type effort, like the Contadora Group that facilitated peace in Central America in the 1980s.

I think Almagro’s attempt to invoke the Democratic Charter on Venezuela is entirely legitimate. The argument that it can only be used with consent of the Executive of the member-state in question is absurd. In fact one of the main historical threats to Latin American democracies has been precisely a power-hungry executive. The Democratic Charter was actually developed in the aftermath of the abuses of the Fujimori government in in Peru, another example of democratic deterioration led by the executive branch.

I should point out that my position differs from those who see the OAS’s use of the Democratic Charter as a case of imperialistic intervention, not because of disagreement on the historical facts of the past year or two, but because of some more fundamental beliefs. In my view, basic democratic rights are “universal” human rights and are not subject to national sovereignty. Put differently, it is entirely legitimate for individuals and governments to concern themselves with the affairs of another country when it has to do with people’s basic rights to decide who they want to lead them and hold those leaders accountable at the ballot box, as well as the freedom to express their views freely in media and street protest. These fundamental rights are being violated in Venezuela.

Scholars on the left who see the discourse of human rights as a new form of imperialism have argued that human rights are not “universal” but are actually human constructions with a history. Of course that is true. But the same can be said for the idea of national sovereignty. In fact, the Peace of Westphalia from which the modern idea of national sovereignty emerged was an agreement among princes that essentially allowed them to have exclusive dominance over their subjects without the interference of competing authorities. In doing so it also reduced the opportunities subjects had for playing rulers off of each other. In this sense the discourse of—if not “universal” at least “supra-national”—human rights is an important achievement for humankind, limiting the power of rulers over citizens and thereby strengthening the position of the latter.

And the very idea of supra-national human rights implies the need for extra-sovereign mechanisms for protecting human rights, such as the OAS Democratic Charter. Venezuela enthusiastically signed it in 2001, effectively handing over aspects of its own sovereignty in exchange for the ability to have some modicum of control over democratic conditions in other sovereign countries. It should not cry foul, then, when it finds itself the focus of regional attention for violating the tenets and guarantees of its own democracy and Constitution.

Venezuela and the OAS

Miguel Tinker Salas
Pomona College

The Organization of American States (OAS) and its current Secretary General Luis Almagro has pursued policies that aggravate the current crisis in Venezuela. Almagro adopted a hostile attitude toward Venezuela since assuming the post that has removed the OAS as a potential mediator in the current crisis. Almagro appears fixated on Venezuela: the country actually has its own tab on the OAS web page, which leads to a speech by Almagro that strangely links the struggle of people of “African descent” with democracy in Venezuela. Rather than providing a way to help mediate the bitter conflict in Venezuela, Almagro has joined one side.

The position of the OAS sadly reflects the longer history of the organization. Since its founding in 1948, the OAS has served as an instrument to promote US Cold War policies and “free trade” initiatives in Latin America. The OAS legitimated US intervention in Guatemala (1954), suspended Cuba (1962) and supported the US invasion of the Dominican Republic (1965). In contrast, the OAS remained largely silent as South American military governments disappeared thousands. It made only perfunctory statements about the US invasion of Panama in 1989 and the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in 2004.

Almagro has maintained a conspicuous silence on dramatic issues occurring elsewhere in Latin America, including the death and disappearance of thousands in Mexico, the open persecution of journalists, and the attack on democracy in Brazil. His fixation on Venezuela drew the attention of the former president of Uruguay, José “Pepe” Mujica, who criticized Almagro: “I cannot understand your silence about Haiti, Guatemala and Asunción while at the same time you publish responses to Venezuela.” Mujica went on to say, “I believe that at some moment we have to serve as a bridge so that all Venezuela, with solvency, can address its self-determination and we should not divorce ourselves from that path.”

Mujica’s comments underscore an alternative path, one where Venezuelans engage in constructive dialogue about the critical problems the country faces. Venezuela’s problems are profound, but all flow from a dependence on petroleum exports. The oil dependency, evident throughout the twentieth century, fueled a national myth that oil would spur modernity. Dictators and democratic political leaders alike promoted the concept of Venezuela as a privileged nation. US officials recognized that the country’s model of development was unsustainable, even as they were promoting Venezuela as a model democracy. While acknowledging that elites and middle sectors had benefited from oil, the United States National Security Council in 1974 concluded that “Uneven development has left other millions of Venezuelans living in untouched poverty, with so slim a stake in the existing system as to make economic reform and income redistribution imperative.”

Hugo Chávez initiated important reforms and expanded access to oil profits, reaching new sectors of society—the core of resentment against his rule―but never fully challenged the belief that oil would develop Venezuela. Repeated assertions that Venezuela had the world’s largest petroleum reserves only reinforced the national myth. Despite huge oil reserves, OPEC co-founder Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo’s astute observation, “El petroleó es nuestro, lo demás lo importamos, (“The oil is ours, but we import everything else”) is still true today.[1]

Neither the government nor the opposition have addressed how to diversify the economy, tackle skyrocketing inflation, promote internal production, expunge corruption, invest in collapsing infrastructure, deter crime, or repair the country’s tattered social fabric. The predicament for the opposition is that people who benefitted from the Chávez era reforms will not simply return to the barrios and resume the life that existed in pre-1998 Venezuela. As the population of the country continues to grow, now 32 million, pressure for continued social reforms will only increase.

Government efforts to dissolve the National Assembly (since retracted), delay elections, or convene a National Constituent Assembly have exacerbated the crisis. However, efforts to forcibly topple President Nicolas Maduro by creating conditions of ungovernability (the so-called guarimbas) including the destruction of public and private property, accompanied by appeals for foreign intervention, condemn Venezuela to a future of social conflict and violence. The opposition forces that engage in dog-whistle politics and do not condemn violence can hardly be expected to unite Venezuela and rebuild the nation.

Rather than taking sides in this bitter and difficult conflict, the OAS should join the efforts of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Vatican, condemn violence on either side, and promote dialogue in the country. The horrifying experiences of Colombia and Central America stand as sad testimony of the inability to dialogue or to recognize the humanity of the other in society.  If after a decades-long conflict that left tens of thousands dead, the political forces in Colombia and El Salvador conducted talks that led to peace settlements, then surely the political forces in Venezuela can create the conditions to do the same. The current government must assure regional elections in 2017 and presidential elections in 2018, and respect the outcome of the process. The country needs elections, but it also needs dialogue over what to do before and after those elections are held. Will Almagro and the OAS help Venezuelans carve this path forward, or will they continue to fuel the conflict?

[1] Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, Hundiéndonos en el excremento del diablo, Caracas: Banco Central 2011) p. 44

Can and Should the OAS Play a Role in the Current Venezuelan Crisis? 

Jennifer McCoy
Georgia State University

The OAS is, in theory, the leading organizational defender of democracy and human rights in the Western hemisphere.  It is incumbent on the OAS member-states not only to defend chief executives when threatened, as they have done primarily when threatened with a military coup such as against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in 2002, or Honduran president Mel Zelaya in 2009, but also when the elected governments themselves abuse their authority against the rights and interests of their own citizens. This is the Achilles’ heel of the OAS.

Governments are reluctant to criticize each other as long as there is a façade of legality to their actions. Take the impeachment processes in Brazil against Dilma or Lugo in Paraguay, or threatened against Bolanos in Nicaragua ― the OAS accepted the first two without question, but acted in the third only after Bolanos himself made use of the Inter-American Democratic Charter to request assistance.

The OAS foreign ministers now have an opportunity on May 31 when they meet to discuss the Venezuelan crisis to not only condemn the clear violations of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and Venezuela’s own constitution over the past year and a half, but also to offer support and incentives to Venezuelans of all political persuasions to engage in a constructive response to the crisis.

What can the OAS actually do?  It is constrained by politics and its own habits of consensus decision-making, but it has important leverage in granting or withdrawing legitimacy from any government or actor in the hemisphere. And legitimacy is crucial in this democratic age. I will address first the constraints, and then the opportunities.

In the last decade and a half, the OAS’ role in the collective defense of democracy has been paralyzed in the midst of hemispheric polarization following a divided reaction to the coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. After playing an important role mediating the Venezuelan political crisis of 2002–04, the OAS was sidelined by Latin American efforts to create parallel organizations excluding the U.S. and Canada ― the South American Union (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), pushed for different reasons by Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico.

Now, with Venezuela facing its most severe political crisis since 2002 (and worst social and economic situation in two decades), the OAS is again attempting to create some traction to help resolve the multi-dimensional crisis, or at least spur neighboring countries to do so. With a new, determined Secretary General and new governments in many countries of the hemisphere, the internal politics of the organization are changing and moving toward a growing, concerned majority willing to take a stand.

On April 3, a majority in the OAS Permanent Council declared that Venezuela has altered its constitutional order in violation of the hemisphere’s Inter-American Democratic Charter. Then on April 26, the Permanent Council decided to convene the May 31 meeting of hemispheric foreign ministers. Following a year of OAS debates about the increasingly dire situation in Venezuela, the foreign ministers meeting is the next step for the organization to move from recommending dialogue to resolve the democratic and humanitarian crisis to the possibility of suspending the country from the organization.

In response, and as large street protests entered their fourth week and tallied 29 deaths, the Venezuelan government indicated its intention to withdraw from the OAS. It is the first country in the body’s 70-year history to do so. (Cuba was suspended in 1962 and invited back in 2010, but it never withdrew nor did it accept to come back.) Thus, Venezuela is choosing to preemptively withdraw rather than risk a humiliating suspension.

The OAS could:

  1. Support the creation of a smaller, pluralist group of countries such as Ecuador, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and Colombia, in conjunction with the other organizations of UNASUR and CELAC, to travel to Venezuela, assess, and offer ideas for resolution of the health, economic, and political dimensions of the current crisis.
  2. Refuse to legitimize the proposed National Constituent Assembly in its current form, which omits prior public approval for its convening, employs a grossly distorted form of election of members, and lacks a clear public rational for its existence while regularly scheduled elections have been delayed.
  3. Work with multilateral development organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank, and Andean Development Bank (CAF) to offer incentives in the form of loans and guarantees to address Venezuela’s severe financial and fiscal constraints in exchange for the restoration of constitutional provisions including the authority of the institutions and due process for all citizens. After the 2009 Honduran coup, development banks “paused” their loans and grants to Honduras in the wake of the OAS suspension of Honduras. Only the CAF has substantial loans to Venezuela, and in March announced a pause to assess the situation. Offers of financial assistance could be tied to a positive OAS report of progress.
  4. Suspension from the OAS is the last resort and strongest sanction the body has. Venezuela’s preemptive move to withdraw, which takes two years to complete, undercuts the isolation effect of a suspension vote. Nevertheless, a suspension decision on May 31 would be a significant symbolic delegitimation of the country’s democratic status, and at the same time would bolster the citizens protesting in the streets.

The OAS should not:

  1. Personalize the conflict, as Secretary General Almagro has succumbed to the temptation to do, responding to President Maduro’s provocation at times in personal tones.
  2. Take sides in the conflict or assume that one side is in the right and the other in the wrong. It should, instead, focus on positive-sum solutions and mutual guarantees for all, avoiding witch hunts, revenge, or private justice.

Venezuela Needs Honest Mediation, Not OAS Intervention

Mark Weisbrot
Center for Economic and Policy Research

The OAS has no positive role to play in resolving the political crisis in Venezuela, any more than would Senator Marco Rubio or other Florida politicians who seek regime change there. At this point, it should be clear to any informed observer that the organization is currently an instrument of those who simply want to use the current crisis to topple the Venezuelan government.

I say this without exaggeration or hyperbole. People who want to avoid escalating violence or civil war in Venezuela should not pretend otherwise, no matter how much they hate the current government or want to see the opposition in power. They should not try to support a process that is so blatantly illegitimate, ill-intentioned, and dangerous.

In Washington bubble circles, the large media outlets and US government are the ultimate arbiters of political legitimacy. Since these actors and their allies are all willing to pretend that the OAS is currently neutral, some well-intentioned people may want to also pretend that this is the case. They may believe that such intervention as the upcoming May 31 OAS meeting of foreign ministers, despite being controlled by partisan actors, would increase pressure on the Venezuelan government to negotiate.

But it is much more likely to have the opposite effect, causing the government and its supporters to dig in their heels against intervention, which can accurately be described as Washington-led (Rubio even publicly threatened the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Haiti with punishment if they did not cooperate with US efforts against Venezuela within the OAS). It could encourage the government to refuse concessions that they should make to the opposition’s legitimate demands. For those who do not know, because it is almost never mentioned in these discussions, a Washington-led strategy is considered suspect because the US government has been trying to undermine, destabilize, and get rid of the Venezuelan government ― on and off ― for more than 15 years.

Nobody is fooled by the fact that some of South America’s most important governments, including Brazil and Argentina, are contributing to this effort. Their new right-wing governments (with Temer hanging on by a thread to his illegitimate presidency) are closely aligned with the Trump administration.

On the opposition side, this strategy of manipulating the OAS for partisan purposes will likely encourage the more extreme and violent elements of the Venezuelan opposition to pursue a strategy of toppling the government by extralegal means.

For some in the Trump administration, this is exactly the intention, and it has been done before. The renowned humanitarian Paul Farmer, who was Bill Clinton’s deputy special envoy of the UN to Haiti testified to the US Congress on the regime change effort there during the early 2000s: “Choking off assistance for development and for the provision of basic services also choked off oxygen to the government, which was the intention all along: to dislodge the Aristide administration.”

The OAS played a vital role in justifying the brutal treatment of Haiti, and therefore the toppling of its democratically elected government. The organization originally concurred with other election observers that the 2000 elections were “a great success for the Haitian population,” but then changed its position as the US regime change effort got underway. Their reversal was key to de-legitimizing the government, which was subsequently starved and overthrown in a US-backed coup in 2004. That has almost always been part of the playbook of regime change: before a government can be overthrown, it must be delegitimized.

There are other recent examples of the OAS being manipulated by Washington for such purposes. In 2011 in Haiti, and OAS mission did something that was never done before in the history of election monitoring: it simply overturned the results of the first round of Haiti’s presidential elections, without a recount or even a statistical test. The US government then threatened Haiti with a cutoff of desperately needed post-earthquake aid if it did not accept the commission’s results, thus choosing who could compete for the presidency of Haiti. In her memoirs, Hillary Clinton describes how she successfully manipulated the OAS to prevent the democratically elected president of Honduras, Mel Zelaya, from returning after the military coup there in 2009.

And now the OAS has a secretary general, Luis Almagro, who is more openly partisan and hostile to a member government (Venezuela) than any leader of the organization in perhaps decades. Among other interventions, he campaigned vigorously in 2015 in a failed attempt to delegitimize the December National Assembly elections in Venezuela.

Venezuela is still a politically polarized country. Any party that seeks to mediate the conflict must have the trust and confidence of both sides. There are political actors who could play this role, as the Vatican tried to do last year. Those who sincerely want to promote dialogue and negotiation for a peaceful resolution of Venezuela’s crisis should support honest mediation. It is desperately needed, and it won’t be coming from the OAS.

The OAS Has Contributed to Venezuelan Polarization and Undermined the Call for National Dialogue

Steve Ellner
Latin American Perspectives

Foreign actors such as the Organization of American States need to play a neutral role in Venezuela if they are to contribute to the process of reestablishing stability and avoiding civil war or anarchy. The two sides in the conflict are in a deadlock and at this point neither one is poised to emerge victorious, at least in the near future. Polarization has reached new heights.

Furthermore, neither side has an air-tight justification for its positions and actions. Indeed, the problems the nation is facing defy easy solutions. While the government of Nicolás Maduro has committed its share of errors, the opposition has also assumed positions that do not reflect popular sentiment, which is in favor of national reconciliation and a focus on concrete economic solutions rather than political confrontation.

The Maduro government’s case cannot be dismissed as lacking substance, as if it were an authoritarian regime. The bellicose behavior of opposition street brigades, including the destruction of public property and the killing and wounding of numerous security forces ― over the last two months as well as during a four months period in 2014 ― would be labeled terrorism in the U.S. and elsewhere. Protesters have also systematically blocked traffic in major street arteries, often by starting fires from sidewalk to sidewalk. Furthermore, Maduro has called for open discussions with no strings attached, a proposition that the opposition turned down both in 2014 and 2017. On the other hand, the government provoked the opposition this year by forbidding the electoral participation of governor and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles for 15 years on allegations of corruption. It also rescheduled state-wide elections, which were slated for December 2016, by one year. While the dozens of deaths related to the protests have occurred under disputed circumstances, the excesses on the part of security forces both in 2014 and this year have been widely recognized, even by the government itself.

This is just the beginning of a list of pros and cons with regard to the government’s democratic commitment, as well as that of the opposition. The point is that the good guy- bad guy narrative is simplistic and does not stand up to the facts.

In spite of the nebulousness and complexity, important international actors such as the OAS as well as the U.S. mainstream media have failed to achieve even a modest degree of impartiality. Specifically, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has failed to place himself above Venezuela’s internal politics and to facilitate a peaceful and constructive resolution of the conflict. Instead, his statements without exception have been unequivocally in line with the opposition’s narrative and demands.

Almagro’s openly hostile position toward the Maduro government inadvertently strengthens the hard-line position in the Chavista movement and the opposition, both of which are resistant to dialogue. His intromission and discourse that questions the Venezuelan government’s democratic credentials serve to embolden the radicals in the opposition and further polarize the nation. Almagro conflates pressing economic problems and the alleged authoritarianism of the Maduro government. This line strengthens the hand of the opposition hard-liners who dismiss all actions (including regional elections) that do not contribute to immediate regime change. In contrast, the moderates within the opposition ― although at this point they have no visible national leader ― favor emphasizing economic issues in order to reach out to the popular sectors of the population who are most affected by the economic calamity, attract some of the disenchanted Chavistas, and at the same time accept dialogue with government representatives. The moderates therefore place an accent mark on economic issues more than political ones.

In short, the OAS should assume a balanced position by criticizing both sides for their intransigence and specific actions that contribute to confrontation. Along these lines, the organization should call on the government and the opposition to negotiate in earnest. At the same time, it should name a nonpartisan committee to investigate disputed events.

Reply to Smilde: We Are Not Arguing About Universal Human Rights, Which the OAS is Not Defending

Mark Weisbrot
Center for Economic and Policy Research

I first want to thank everyone for participating in this dialogue, and Miguel Tinker Salas for initiating it. Dialogue of this type, not only on Venezuela, but on Latin America generally, is quite rare in the United States, and a few years ago most of the major media cut back drastically on their occasional brief quotes from people who dissented from US foreign policy in the region. The debate on Latin America here is considerably more restricted than it is even for most other regions of the world where the United States is involved.

David Smilde writes:

I should point out that my position differs from those who see the OAS’s use of the Democratic Charter as a case of imperialistic intervention, not because of disagreement on the historical facts of the past year or two, but because of some more fundamental beliefs. In my view, basic democratic rights are “universal” human rights and are not subject to national sovereignty. Put differently, it is entirely legitimate for individuals and governments to concern themselves with the affairs of another country when it has to do with people’s basic rights to decide who they want to lead them and hold those leaders accountable at the ballot box, as well as the freedom to express their views freely in media and street protest. These fundamental rights are being violated in Venezuela.

Scholars on the left who see the discourse of human rights as a new form of imperialism have argued that human rights are not “universal” but are actually human constructions with a history.

This is decidedly not the disagreement on this page. In terms of fundamental beliefs, I think I speak for everyone in this dialogue in agreeing that “basic democratic rights are ‘universal’ human rights.”

Nobody on this page is making the argument that “the discourse of human rights [is] a new form of imperialism [and] that human rights are not ‘universal’ but are actually human constructions with a history.” Even if it were true, that is definitely not the argument here. (In fairness to David, none of us saw the other posts before submitting our own.)

As David will see from reading the pieces by Miguel and myself, we are arguing that the OAS is at this moment controlled by powerful interests who are using it to help topple a government, for political reasons, not to improve the human rights situation in Venezuela or in any other country.

This is not a “new form of imperialism,” but sadly a very old one, as Miguel has briefly summarized.

We presented a whole set of facts above, with links to a mountain more, to make this case. I would argue that the evidence is so strong that in the US judicial system, it would meet not only the civil law standard of “preponderance of the evidence” but probably also the stricter criminal law standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

If David or anyone else wants to defend the OAS intervention, they need to address the actual facts and evidence. Here are some questions that I think they would need to answer:

1)      After what the OAS did under U.S. manipulation in Haiti (2000–2004 and 2011), Honduras (2009), and Paraguay (2012), why should anyone believe that the current leadership is neutral with regard to the partisan divide in Venezuela? Not to mention the pre-21st century history described by Miguel.

2)      Does the fact that Secretary General Luis Almagro has demonstrated such a profound and public animus against Venezuela make any difference?

3)      How about the fact that the US government, led by Donald Trump and his allies filled with hatred for Venezuela, has more control over OAS decision-making at this time that it has had in decades?

4)      Can an ostensibly multilateral process that is so tainted and openly partisan contribute to the resolution of a political crisis in a polarized country? If so, how?

I would welcome any answers to these questions; it is difficult to see how the OAS intervention can have much legitimacy if these concerns have no credible answers.

Response to David and Jennifer: International Intervention is Justifiable Only in Cases of Systematic and Flagrant Violation of Human Rights and Democratic Norms

Steve Ellner
Latin American Perspectives

I agree with David’s basic premise regarding the universality of human rights. The reason why Venezuela’s national sovereignty is being breached is not because of the violation of any sacred or abstract principle, but rather because OAS Secretary General Almagro and the governments that support him are acting in an arbitrary fashion. An all-encompassing condemnation of a nation leading to organizational expulsion would be justified in the case of a clear-cut systematic and flagrant violation of human rights. An example of such a clear-cut case is the government of the Philippines, whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, has been lauded by President Donald Trump, the same president who supports measures against Venezuela in the OAS. Similarly, the Mexican government endorses OAS resolutions against Venezuela, but what about the 43 students assassinated (or disappeared) in Iguala with apparent police complicity, or the 14 journalists who have been assassinated in the country over the last 12 months without a single arrest? And if Almagro’s call for general elections in Venezuela on grounds of Maduro’s sagging popularity is taken seriously, then the same demand should be applied to Brazil, where President Michel Temer’s popularity has reached 5 percent, or Mexico, whose president Enrique Peña Nieto has an approval rating of 17 percent.

The relevant issues in Venezuela are not black and white for the reasons I mention in my piece. Most important, the government’s actions have to be contextualized. For example, the use of tear gas against a peaceful demonstration which does not threaten public order has to be distinguished from a demonstration which is heading toward the downtown area near the presidential palace where violence is likely to ensue. The latter has occurred nearly on a daily basis over the last two months. In addition, the widespread violence by opposition brigades also on a daily basis throughout Venezuela, the numerous cases of destruction of public property ranging from ministries, to government vehicles to subway stations to public buses, need to be brought into the equation, and yet these actions have been largely ignored by Almagro and other critics of the Venezuelan government as well as the mainstream media. The devil is in the details, and in order to justify sanctions against Venezuela, each one of those details has to be explored in an objective manner.

There are credible arguments in favor and against this year’s announced electoral agenda. The government, for instance, points out that the opposition itself called for the holding of a national constituent assembly and now they refuse to participate. Given the current deadlock in Venezuela, the constituent assembly call has the potential to bring together diverse sectors in order to solve concrete problems. On the other hand, if it fails to reach beyond the hard-core Chavistas, it will only aggravate an already critical situation. Similarly, the scheduling of gubernatorial and state assembly elections for December of this year is open to debate. On the one hand, those elections should have been held last December. On the other hand, up until the National Electoral Council’s recent announcement of the December 2017 date, the opposition had been demanding the holding of state-wide elections, but now some of its leaders hint that they will oppose participation.

Given this ambiguity and nebulousness, I would question Jennifer’s statement regarding “the clear violations of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and Venezuela’s own constitution over the past year and a half.” An objective evaluation of the issue of the state of Venezuelan democracy will undoubtedly come up with serious breaches of democratic norms, but the government’s arguments are credible enough to deny a black and white conclusion or blanket condemnation. That being the case, the position assumed by those who call for the application of the Democratic Charter lacks validity.

Reply to Weisbrot and Ellner: We agree on some basic facts, but not on theory

David Smilde
Tulane University and WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America)

I appreciate Mark and Steve’s replies to my response to the forum-organizer’s question on the OAS role in Venezuela. I highly value spaces such as this one because I think progressives should feel a special sense of urgency to analyze and debate a left-project-gone-wrong like Chavismo. Not doing so allows the right-wing to control the agenda and stamp what is going on in Venezuela in a way that will complicate other left projects in the future.

The disagreement between Mark, Miguel, Steve and me is an interesting one because we agree on most of the basic facts, but work with different political and theoretical perspectives and so frame them differently. For instance, Mark says, based on Miguel’s recounting of the history of the OAS:

We are arguing that the OAS is at this moment controlled by powerful interests who are using it to help topple a government, for political reasons, not to improve the human rights situation in Venezuela.

I could actually agree with this sentence if it were edited in the following way to give it a little more realistic view of the situation.

We are arguing that the OAS is at this moment AND FOR THE FORSEEABLE FUTURE controlled by powerful COMPETING interests who are using it to help topple CHALLENGE OR SUPPORT a government, for political reasons, not to improve WHICH INCLUDE IMPROVING the human rights situation in Venezuela.

First, of course the OAS is the site of powerful political interests. The idea that that there could somehow be “neutral,” “honest,” or “well-intentioned” mediation is simply naïve and uninformed by a century and a half of critiques of rationalist, foundationalist philosophy. What would “neutral” mean? Actors without political interests? Actors without cultures? Actors without histories? Who will designate these neutral actors? From what criteria? The same can be said for the demand for “honest” and “well-intentioned” actors. These are to be determined by which criteria? Judged by whom? There are no self-evident criteria, nor are there judges speaking Esperanto that will fall from the sky to resolve our conflicts. There are only human agreements based on arguments, consolidated into institutions. These institutions have histories and are inevitably the sites of struggle among unequal actors.

But in most cases, and certainly in this case, these political interests are competing. In the OAS discussion on Venezuela, there is a bloc of countries that includes the US and with whom we can assume the US is engaging in power politics using its economic, political, and military resources to generate support. And there is a group of countries over which Venezuela has a large degree of influence: the CARICOM countries that have benefitted from Petrocaribe and the countries that form part of the ALBA strategic bloc.

In terms of resources with which to influence allies, the US clearly has the advantage over Venezuela. But in terms of the structure of the OAS, it would seem Venezuela has the advantage. The one country, one vote OAS system gives small countries an amplified voice. So St. Lucia, with a population of under 200,000 people, has the same voting power as Brazil, with a population of nearly 208 million. And St. Vincent, with a population of 110,000, has one vote just like the US, with a population of more than 321 million. As a result of the OAS rules, the pro-Venezuela block has been able to hold off the Venezuela-critical block, despite having a fraction of the population and resources.

Indeed, usually when I have this discussion it is with right-wing supporters of unilateral US measures, like sanctions. Their argument is that the OAS is structurally flawed and will never act with respect to Venezuela because of its petro-diplomacy, and therefore unilateral measures are justified.

And that is really what is at stake here. Despite their inevitably flawed and uninspiring histories, multilateral spaces with clear rules and obligatory, public debate are always going to be better than bilateral conflict that depends simply on guns and money. It is unlikely that the OAS will be able to come up with any sort of consensual plan of action. Even if it does, Venezuela will simply reject it. However, the diplomatic process, discussion and debate are extraordinarily important. They force the US to engage in diplomacy with countries in the region, make their arguments and listen to others. They force Venezuela to do the same. The process of diplomacy, discussion, and debate bring out new information, new understandings and new areas of consensus.

All of this could lead to some other multilateral initiative among a “group of friends” that could be key in facilitating negotiation in the Venezuelan conflict, as the Contadora Group did in Central America in the 1980s. The Contadora countries had a variety of interests of their own, not all of which were noble. But they succeeded in forming a counter-hegemonic bloc, that developed a strategy at odds with the goals of the United States. If we were to follow the criteria promoted by Weisbrot et al, we would have to reject the Contadora initiative because the motivations of these countries were not completely honest or well-intentioned.

It is good to be clear on what we are talking about here. The OAS does not have the power to “topple” Venezuela. In fact it does not even have the power to “intervene” in Venezuela. It only has the power to withhold its legitimacy. States become part of multilateral institutions not only to have spaces to engage their peers, but because these institutions provide them with added democratic legitimacy vis-a-vis their populations, competing authorities, and competing states. Venezuela forms part of the OAS of its own volition, signed on to the Democratic Charter in 2001, and even supported the candidacy of Luis Almagro for Secretary General. It is only now, when it is the focus of criticism, that Venezuela’s government has decided to withdraw.

None of this obliges an uncritical backing of Secretary General Luis Almagro. As I mentioned previously, in my view he jumped the gun by about a year, and failed to do the groundwork necessary to develop a consensus. More recently, his statements regarding Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López being guilty of “crimes against humanity” were not only unstrategic, they were criticized as inaccurate by the Venezuelan human rights groups in best position to judge. Almagro successfully put Venezuela on the agenda of the region, but in my view his handling of the Venezuela case has impeded the formation of a consensus in the OAS. In any case, at this point his role is secondary. He put the issue on the agenda, but it is the Permanent Council and the General Assembly that can actually make decisions about Venezuela and the Democratic Charter.

Nor does supporting the current OAS discussion oblige one to regard the OAS as the preeminent multilateral space for discussion of the Venezuela crisis. I had high hopes for the CELAC discussion, thinking that without the presence of the US, discussion of a solution might take off. But CELAC member-states seemed to prefer the OAS as a space for this problem. UNASUR has made some noises, but does not seem to have any plans. It is the OAS that is in position to hold a discussion and form consensus in a relevant time frame.

Whatever forum the discussion takes place, it will inevitably be political. But that does not mean it will not include human rights advocacy. Seeing “the political” as purely instrumental and cynical is an old-fashioned fiction. Seeing sincere human rights advocacy as non-political is just as naive. Most politics contain a mixture of self-interest and moral interests, and the moral interests are often determinative. Political actors can be politically interested in human rights insofar as they think it requires power to actually defend them. There is no contradiction there. This will be true of the OAS, CELAC, UNASUR or any other imaginable forum.

On a final point, I am glad to hear that nobody in this discussion is arguing against the idea that “basic democratic rights are ‘universal’ human rights.” However, let me point out that my friend Steve Ellner’s most recent comment begins with the idea that invoking the Democratic Charter on Venezuela “would be justified in the case of a clear-cut systematic and flagrant violation of human rights,” but that this is not now the case of Venezuela.

How is it possible that a government that has postponed two elections and is now violating the Constitution by aiming to rewrite the Constitution without first asking people if that is what they want (polls show they don’t), is not engaging in “systematic and flagrant violation of human rights?” What is more, the electoral bases of the Constituent Assembly are so stilted that they will deliver Chavismo a majority of the delegates with just 20-30% of the vote. This Constituent Assembly is not based on any popular demand, but on the Maduro government’s desire to change the rules instead of facing electoral defeat. This isn’t a flagrant violation, it’s an obnoxious violation of democratic rights.

In Steve’s statement we can see the left’s long-term willingness to cast a blind eye towards violation of electoral rights as long as they are part of a supposedly progressive project. The same tendency can be seen in the Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales statement that came out at the end of April, which is concerned about violence, but does not even mention elections. The truly unique historical achievement of Chavismo con Chávez was that it pushed forward with a leftist revolution through electoral democracy, threading the needle not once, but time and again. Chavismo con Maduro has betrayed that achievement, turning the movement into a crass power grab oriented more towards the well-being of governing elites than the well-being of the popular sectors whose hopes for a better world have been dashed once again.

Reply to Tinker Salas, Weisbrot and Ellner: We agree on some basics, but differ in interpretation and prioritization of issues.

Jennifer McCoy
Georgia State University

David makes many points that I would make, so let me be succinct in a few points about the OAS and then try to point out some areas of agreement and disagreement about the current crisis in Venezuela. Like David, I believe most of our disagreements are about interpretation of history and the balance we give in those interpretations:

  1. The OAS does not equal the Secretary General, as Steve, Miguel and Mark seem to conflate.
  2. The OAS is a club of presidents and prime ministers and spends most of its time defending each other (i.e. their primary reactions come in response to coups), rather than defending their populations against abuses (or failures to act) of each other. They do so not because of some lofty principle of sovereignty, but because they fear criticism of their own actions. See my analysis of their 21st-century record here.
  3. The OAS includes the second-most advanced human rights system in the world (after Europe) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, have criticized boldly many of the human rights violations flagged by Mark and Miguel.
  4. There seems to remain a general confusion about the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which is not meant to be a punitive instrument, but rather a hemispheric commitment to democratic rights as human rights. It seeks to provide assistance to strengthen those democracies, good offices to help resolve democratic disputes, and only has one punitive measure: suspension of membership. The “invocation” or “application” of the Charter does not mean automatic expulsion, as Steve implies. See my explanation here.
  5. The OAS has been paralyzed and polarized in many regards since 2004 by a cold war competition between Venezuela and the U.S. As David describes, the consensus decision-making model and one-country, one-vote gives vastly disproportionate weight in decision-making to citizens of the Caribbean versus citizens of the U.S. or Brazil, making our own electoral college mal-apportionments look tame in comparison.

Do we agree on anything? I think at least four of us agree (not sure about Mark) that Venezuela is in the midst of a terrible situation that currently seems deadlocked and needs some help getting out.

I think all five of us agree that the original chavista goals of providing greater inclusion for marginalized citizens of Venezuela and the experiments in new forms of participatory and communal democracy, production and redistribution of national wealth were laudatory in principle.

We disagree on how far they have gone awry and who is responsible for that. David and I have emphasized that democratic rights are human rights. I would also emphasize that governments in general, which hold in principle a monopoly on the use of force and also control the national purse-strings, should be held to different standards than groups of citizens.

We may have been closer in alignment in assessing in 2002 that forces opposed to the government acted undemocratically, and had the means to do so when allying with military factions. I see 2017 in a very different light, with a very different correlation of forces.

In Venezuela in particular, where the government now holds virtually all of the levers of the power (in contrast to 2002 when power was effectively divided in different arenas of media, economy, public institutions, and security forces), we should not make a moral equivalency between protestors in the street who throw rocks and Molotov cocktails out of frustration, and security forces with a whole range of weapons at their disposal representing the government with its primary mandate to protect its own citizens.

We also disagree on the severity and characterization of the violations of democracy. I agree that democracy does impose obligations on all of its citizens to respect the rights of other citizens and to not incite violence, much less carry it out. But what I see happening in Venezuela today is a strangulation of all peaceful outlets (elections, protests, media discussions, influence over policy) to express severe grievances. The people are in pain, and avenues to express that pain and to have any hope of change are choked off.

Steve claims that “the government’s arguments are credible enough to deny a black and white conclusion or blanket condemnation” of its “breaches of democratic norms.” But his own list of the government’s violation of citizen rights, and its own constitution, omitted several key points: the obstruction of the recall referendum, the intervention in the National Assembly starting with the non-recognition of the election of deputies from one state that have never been addressed since Jan 2016, the trying of ordinary citizens in military tribunals, and the introduction of a constituent assembly as a clear distraction from the current crisis, with all the problems David listed.

While I agree with Steve that a call for a constituent assembly could have” the potential to bring together diverse sectors in order to solve concrete problems”, this situation is not one of those. It was done without consultation, without following constitutional procedures, and with such apparent cynicism that it is virtually impossible to serve that purpose now. Instead, it will undoubtedly function as Steve’s alternate scenario: “On the other hand, if it fails to reach beyond the hard-core Chavistas, it will only aggravate an already critical situation.”

As we watch the OAS debate once more on June 19, I echo some of David’s sentiments. The value of such political debates (and they are political in nature, but hopefully based in legal principle of commitments the country’s have all voluntarily adopted) is to bring attention to crises in the hemisphere, and help protect citizens where they cannot protect themselves. The only leverage such an international organization has is the legitimacy it can grant or withdraw to a member-government. We can’t expect much more, and I expect less – given the continued politicization and divisions within the hemisphere, I think it will be an opportunity missed to provide the incentives and structures that I suggested in my first post to encourage both sides to break their stalemate.

2 thoughts on “Is the OAS Playing a Constructive Role on Venezuela? What Should It Be Doing Differently?

  1. The OAS may be responsible for missteps as clearly established by the articles above, yet they must form part of the solution to this very complex problem. It is time for OAS leadership to be the responsible adult in the room, demand the end of systemic corruption, seek the elimination of roving bands of hoodlums, and bring peace to the streets. Only then Venezuela can return to the democratic path they followed for most of the second half of the twentieth century. End the bloodshed now!


  2. Pingback: Some articles I found interesting this morning | Adam Isacson

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