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

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.

By Steve Ellner, Latin American Perspectives.

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