What is the OAS good for?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 25, 2014


It is wrong to blame the Organization of American States (OAS) for its lack of initiative in stepping up to help facilitate a way out of the social, economic and political crisis in Venezuela. The OAS cannot do more than what its member nations want it to do. The insufficient engagement of the OAS in the Venezuelan crisis results from the lack of interest on the part of Latin American leaders to help preserve democratic rule in Venezuela, guarantee the right of the opposition to voice its discontent and facilitate meaningful dialogue among the parties involved.


The Nicolás Maduro government and the opposition in Venezuela do not see eye to eye almost on anything. The government accuses the opposition of wanting to destabilize the administration. In the eyes of chavista supporters, the opposition wants to win in the streets what it could not win at the ballot box — popular support from the majority. The opposition, and many human rights organizations, accuse the government of using a heavy hand to repress protesters who are exercising their constitutional right to demonstrate against the government. Opponents of Maduro argue that the very fact that the government accuses them of being coup-plotters is evidence of its lack of democratic values.


As normally happens when political positions grow increasingly polarized, both sides have good points, but have also made mistakes. There are many among the opposition who have failed to show their commitment and respect for democratic principles, and the government also has a record of insufficient respect for democratic institutions and human rights.


Precisely because there is plenty of room for a credible third party to step in and mediate between the moderate forces in the government and the opposition, many Venezuelans are disappointed at the OAS for failing to do what, in their view, is its obligation. OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza has been vilified by friends and foes of the Maduro government for his apparent lack of interest in getting involved as a mediating party in the conflict. In fact, it seems that one of the few things the Venezuelan government and opposition agree on is that the OAS has failed to live up to its mission of ensuring the continuation of democratic rule and respect for human rights.


It is easy, but wrong, to blame the OAS Secretary-General, who has little over one year left to complete his second and last five-year term. Insulza and the OAS cannot make decisions on their own. They are mandated by the member states and must carry out the decisions made by those member states. Insulza cannot choose to take a more active role.


As different countries have very different views on what should be done in Venezuela, the OAS has not been able to agree on a clear mandate. While the US government is inclined to support the protesters, most Latin American nations are taking sides with the Maduro administration. After all, for many countries that experienced US-backed military takeovers in the 1960s and 1970s, the situation in Venezuela is reminiscent of their democratic breakdowns, where the opposition takes advantage of a dire economic situation to overthrow the nation’s democratic leader, with the implicit support of the US government. Given that scenario, few Latin American democracies are willing to risk being perceived as undermining a democratically elected government.


However, as the street demonstrations have repeatedly shown, Venezuela is going through difficult times. The economic crisis is severe and will likely get worse. Crime is out of control. The Maduro government has been unable to curb corruption and restore order. People are discontented and blame the government for the economic situation — though people also probably blame the opposition for being more concerned with seeking Maduro’s dismissal than fixing the problems that afflict Venezuelans on a daily basis. The situation is critical and it calls for Latin American political leaders to step up and help find a solution.


For different reasons, Latin American presidents have shown little interest in getting involved. With elections due this year, the Brazilian and Colombian presidents are focused on their own re-election. Argentina is undergoing its own turbulent times. The president of Peru has shown little interest in being an active regional leader. The leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador are partisan in favour of Maduro. Mexico has made it clear that it sees its area of influence ending in Central America. The newly inaugurated president of Chile does not want to alienate her coalition partners — some of whom are firmly with Maduro and others strongly with the opposition. The lack of interest that the Venezuelan crisis sparks in Latin American capital cities renders the OAS incapable of taking on a stronger role.


The OAS has failed to engage more actively on the Venezuelan crisis, but the blame should not be placed on Insulza, its Secretary-General. If the OAS is not more involved, it is because its member states are unwilling to stand up in defence of democracy in Venezuela.