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.
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?
 Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, Hundiéndonos en el excremento del diablo, Caracas: Banco Central 2011) p. 44
By Miguel Tinker Salas, Pomona College.