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.
By David Smilde, Tulane University, Washington Office on Latin America.