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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
By Jennifer McCoy, Georgia State University.