The Special Session of the OAS on the Situation in Venezuela, June 23, 2016: The Permanent Council Leaves a Mixed Message
Frederick B. Mills
The atmosphere at the special session of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) on June 23 to hear Secretary General Luis Almagro’s report on the situation in Venezuela was tense, with both pro-Chavista and pro-opposition demonstrators outside the building and a formidable media presence inside. The President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup, was watching the proceedings on a monitor elsewhere in the building while the Venezuelan mission and its allies inside the Simon Bolivar Room were indignant that the meeting was even taking place. There was a great deal at stake for the future of the OAS as well for Venezuela.
After the call to order, Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Delcy Rodríguez proposed that the agenda be rejected, questioning its legality with regard to the norms of the OAS. Rodríguez argued that the agenda constituted a form of golpismo against the government of Venezuela within the OAS itself because it inherently fails to recognize the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Venezuela. Instead, Almagro’s agenda substitutes the opposition coalition (United Democratic Roundtable – MUD), which has a majority in the Venezuelan National Assembly, as if it were the legitimate agent for an appeal to the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The agenda thereby uses the OAS as a platform to indict, try, and judge the government of Venezuela. By its attempt to delegitimize the Maduro administration, the agenda also promotes golpismo inside Venezuela. With regard to the report itself, Rodríguez made the case later in the session that it lacked validity because it failed to make use of independent, impartial experts. The OAS was about to set a dangerous precedent, argued Rodríguez , for similar outrages to be perpetrated in the future.
After a vote of 20 for approving the agenda, 12 against, and two abstentions, Almagro was able to proceed with reading a summary of the 132 page report aimed at justifying his claim that there has been, per article 20 of the Charter, “an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order” in Venezuela. This allegation addresses one of the requirements for applying the Charter to a member state. Application of the Charter could ultimately lead to the temporary suspension of a member state from the OAS (article 21). So this vote was serous business. Voting yes were: Uruguay, Surinam, Perú, Paraguay, Panamá, México, Jamaica, Honduras, Guyana, Guatemala, US, Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile, Canada, Brazil, Belize, Barbados, Bahamas, and Argentina. Although this particular vote was not about applying the Democratic Charter but for approval of the session’s agenda, it nevertheless altered the configuration of political forces for both the Venezuelan opposition (MUD) and the administration of President Nicolas Maduro.
The special session of the Permanent Council of the OAS of June 23 produced an ambiguous outcome. On the one hand, the opposition (MUD) was able to make its case to the international media by means of press conferences outside the Simon Bolivar Room and the reading of a summary of the report by Almagro inside the Room. The opposition has also managed, through their man in the OAS, to keep the Charter on the table. The fact that 20 members voted to allow the agenda to proceed was itself a momentous political act, keeping hope alive for the opposition that enough of these votes will evolve into full support for applying the Charter further down the road.
On the other hand, since there was no significant show of support or declaration by the Permanent Council in favor of applying the Charter, nor a formal endorsement of the remedies recommended by the Secretary General, nor an announcement of a future meeting to address this issue, the government comes away with another window of opportunity to address the economic crisis, resist the pre-conditions set by the opposition for talks, and to fortify its position among the majority of member states.
Given these considerations, Maduro is unlikely to get full cooperation from the MUD with regard to dealing with the economic crisis and there is now little prospect that the MUD will participate in a Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) sponsored dialog without some serious prodding from its international allies. So long as the MUD perceives that the Charter is on the table, it probably will view this as leverage and continue its push for a recall referendum to take place this year rather than next year. This, as well as other demands would then remain as conditions for entering into direct talks with the Maduro administration. Why sit down with Maduro when the full weight of the OAS and the threat of U.S. intervention (let us recall that Obama’s Executive Order is still in force) might be brought to bear against him.
Despite these ambiguous features of the session, there was some continuity in the last three meetings of the OAS with regard to mediation. Notwithstanding some skepticism over the still “exploratory” status of the UNASUR effort (which is accompanied by three former presidents), almost all ministers of the Council expressed support for UNASUR sponsored mediation between the government and the opposition. This is consistent with the universal applause given to former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero who addressed the Council on June 21 and with the declaration issued earlier, on June 1, by the Council in support of UNASUR’s work on behalf of dialogue.
While the mood at the special session was tense, there was no grand finale. There was concern over the situation in Venezuela voiced by a number of ministers, but these generally were not calls for adversarial intervention against the government. A more adversarial critique came from the representative of Paraguay, outdone only by the US representative who supported the session’s agenda and expressed concern about human rights and democracy in Venezuela. There was also some intense criticism by a number of member states of the role being played by Almagro. For example, due to Almagro’s blatant partisanship on the side of the opposition of a member state (Venezuela), Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela called for Almagro’s resignation, arguing that he had undermined his role as Secretary General of the organization.
The OAS position on Almagro’s interventionism on behalf of the Venezuelan opposition is evolving not only in relation to the situation in Venezuela, but also in relation to the conservative wave in parts of South America (Brazil and Argentina). No doubt the member states are also cognizant of the continent wide Bolivarian movement that insists on regional sovereignty and abhors imperial intervention. Moreover, historic memory certainly plays a role in the deliberations of the Council. Indeed, the ugly past of the OAS still haunts the Simon Bolivar Room; it was only little over a week ago that the 46th Ordinary Assembly of the Organization of OAS met in Santo Domingo and issued an apology for the U.S. led invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965.
It is too early to see exactly where all of the 20 states that voted in favor of giving Almagro a hearing stand on inviting imperial intervention. Some of the 20 ministers explicitly stated during the session that they were opposed to applying the Charter (including Surinam and the Bahamas), even though they voted in favor of the session’s agenda. This means Almagro still may not have a simple majority at this time to activate the Charter, let alone a two thirds majority, should he seek this down the road, for a vote for suspension. Perhaps that is why he did not push yet for a vote.
This latest chapter of OAS history is far from over. But we can see the outlines of the coming struggle. The ongoing effort by Almagro, on behalf of Washington and the Venezuelan opposition to apply the Inter-American Democratic Charter is arguably inconsistent with supporting the pursuit of UNASUR mediated talks, because keeping the Charter on the table provides a disincentive for the opposition to participate in a dialogue with the Maduro administration. Any further delay by the opposition in coming to the mediation table, however, could have a political cost for the MUD. The reason for this is that the proposed talks have the support of the majority of Venezuelans. According to a recent Hinterlaces poll, 74% of Venezuelans consulted agree that it is better for Venezuela if there is a dialogue between the government and the opposition to reach an agreement to resolve the economic problems of the country while 25% were in disagreement.
Time also is of the essence for the government. Unless there is urgent improvement in overcoming the shortages of basic goods and improving public security, the government will face further erosion in its traditional base of support, which in turn would add to the leverage of the opposition in their efforts to lobby the OAS to have yet another round of “discussion” on the situation in Venezuela.
In the end, the fundamental argument over the Charter question is whether its application in the present case is legal. (Or is legality itself merely a function of hegemonic political interests?) The articles constituting the content of the Charter (especially 20 and 21) arguably do not apply to Venezuela because the Charter can presumably be legally applied only when there is “an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order.” While there is intense conflict between the branches of government in Venezuela, the OAS does not appear convinced, at least not yet, that this rises to the level of a rupture in the constitutional order. Nevertheless, by conducting Thursday’s session, the OAS, thanks to Almagro and the 20 who voted for the agenda, has inserted itself into the internal affairs of the government of Venezuela, forcing all member states to take sides, including the ones which abstained.