The crisis in Venezuela has escalated beyond the capacity of domestic actors to find a space for dialogue. Each party rejects the legitimacy of its rival. Human rights violations – and protester violence – are leaving deep wounds in Venezuelan society that will take years to heal. Not long ago, such an impasse would have prompted the immediate response of the international community and particularly of regional organisations such as the Organization of American States (OAS). But Latin America is dividing against itself, and Venezuelans are paying the price.
During and after democratic transitions in the hemisphere’s southern cone and the negotiated peace of armed conflicts in Central America (1983-1996), the region built a credible system to protect human rights. The Inter-American Commission and Court on Human Rights, whose competence and jurisdiction were recognised by almost all American nations (with the notable exceptions of Canada, Cuba, and the U.S.), established standards to sanction past and present human rights violations. In 2001, the OAS, at the culmination of this expansive process, adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter to protect and promote democracy and the rule of law, understanding that these were vital components of free societies.
The OAS, which had been paralysed during the Cold War, found a renewed mission: to protect democracy, including by sanctioning those who interrupted democratic process or violated citizens’ rights. Latin America became a showcase of international rules and standards. In the case of the Peruvian political crisis of 2000, for example, the OAS facilitated a democratic transition that put an end to an authoritarian regime. A similar role, but even more critical, was played by the OAS in Haiti.
This might, in retrospect, have been the high point.
A Crisis of Regionalism
The inability of the OAS or other regional bodies to act in Venezuela comes on the heels of several recent failures. A few years after broad acceptance of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, serious challenges appeared in Bolivia (2003 and 2005), Ecuador (2005), Honduras (2009), and Paraguay (2012). Beyond some rhetoric and a temporary suspension of the smallest country on this list, all these sometimes violent overthrows of legitimate leaders were forgiven and forgotten. However, in all these situations, the political organs of the regional organisations at least discussed publicly and vigorously what to do.
The case of Venezuela is more dramatic and markedly worse. Panama’s request at the end of February to hold a special meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the Venezuelan crisis failed after a five-hour OAS meeting on 6 March. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, responded aggressively, cutting all diplomatic and trade ties with Panama. A multi-hour, closed-door session the next day resulted in a vague resolution that blended a defence of the Venezuelan government’s views with soft rhetoric about peace.
Although the resolution passed with a strong majority, the information publicly available about that Friday’s debate suggests that political polarisation is not unique to Venezuela. Brazil tried to prevent any discussion at all; Panama, Canada and the U.S. pressed hard for a strong discussion, a firm statement and a field mission; Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and some Caribbean nations looked for a statement to support Maduro and condemn the violence coming from the opposition; Peru, Mexico, Chile and Colombia hoped that, at the very least, the OAS secretary general would monitor the situation. The feeble outcome finally served the interests of the Venezuelan government, which hailed it as a victory.
The result is a virtual paralysis of the organisation which is both empowered and required to openly discuss serious threats to regional stability, to democracy, and to human rights.
The Venezuelan government has asked the South American Nations Union (UNASUR) to take the lead. Venezuela will count on UNASUR to hold a much milder debate than was the case at the OAS, with the government alone being empowered to present the facts. However, UNASUR cannot meet except by unanimous consent. The possibility of using the nascent (founded in 2011) Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) or the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), which recently opened its doors to Venezuela, is even more questionable.
Behind all this extensive talk and virtual inaction there is a troubling trend in the region of polarised views on almost everything. Even the once vigorous human rights system is under serious threat, as several countries have been looking for ways to weaken the protection mechanisms they previously helped put in place.
In Chile, Brazil’s Moment?
There are now few options available to avoid a major meltdown of an important and vibrant Latin American nation. The continent’s leaders should at least be able to agree on the basic need to restore a credible dialogue and, simultaneously, to insist that Venezuela’s government guarantee that human rights will be protected. This should include the release of opposition leader Leopoldo López and other political detainees.
With the OAS sidelined for now, and with Venezuela seeking regional alternatives more for their weakness than their strength, attention has turned to Brazil. Because of its size and growing importance – and its economic, political and even emotional links with Chavismo – Brazil is best placed to bring the sides together.
Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said [at the beginning of March] that Maduro “made a mistake in not doing more to advance the necessary dialogue with the opposition”. In the foreign press, various commentators ( here, here and here) have focused on the failure of regional institutions and what Brazil might do about it. But so far Brazil seems seriously, and somewhat unexpectedly, reluctant to do almost anything, at least in public. In other cases, such as in Honduras and Paraguay, the voice of Brazil was heard condemning the breakdown of the rule of law and demanding restoration of democracy and respect for human rights. It would be a disaster if, on Venezuela, we need to wait for open civil conflict or a coup to hear a much firmer voice from Brasília.
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