Correcting Mistakes on Venezuela and the OAS

On Friday the Washington Post published an editorial called “Trump has a chance to correct Obama’s mistake on Venezuela.” While the Editorial Board can be excused for using the season’s most popular hook for getting the Trump Administration’s attention, for those who really care about the situation in Venezuela, it is important to get the facts straight. Recalling what actually happened in June 2016 leads to quite different recommendations on how to constructively respond to the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro’s petition to invoke the Democratic Charter.

The editorial argues that “the Obama administration ignored Mr. Almagro when he made a similar appeal last year.” This is simply false. After Almagro made public a report on Venezuela’s democratic deficits on May 31, 2016, calling for the Democratic Charter to be applied, the US supported this call from beginning to end.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in favor of discussion of the Democratic Charter during the OAS General Assembly on June 14, 2016 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. In his speech he supported the opposition’s push for a recall referendum and called on the Maduro government to release political prisoners and respect fundamental rights. On the side of that meeting the United States and fourteen other countries signed a letter supporting UNASUR’s dialogue and Almagro’s push to discuss the Democratic Charter.

On June 23, when the OAS Permanent Council met in Washington, the United Sates was one of twenty countries voting in favor of discussing Almagro’s invocation. In that discussion, U.S. representative to the OAS Mike Fitzpatrick supported Almagro, and suggested that his initiative “complements and does not compete” with the dialogue led by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). He added that while dialogue was important “we cannot allow it to be an excuse for inaction. The Venezuelan people cannot afford delays for finding solutions to the problems they face.”

Although there was a discussion about Venezuela and whether it was complying with the requirements of the Democratic Charter, the OAS Permanent Council never voted on invoking the Democratic Charter in that meeting on June 23. Why not? Because it was clear that they did not have the votes needed to pass it—only twenty countries out of thirty-six had voted in favor of having the discussion at all. Invoking the charter—which means launching a formal inquiry about whether or not Venezuela has violated democratic norms—requires a two-thirds majority vote, and it was exceedingly unlikely that four additional countries would have changed their minds because of the discussion. And holding a vote and not getting the two-thirds required to win would have been a rebuke of Almagro’s leadership. Instead the Permanent Council voted on an alternative resolution supporting the existing UNASUR dialogue.

Why does it matter to set the record straight? For the same reason it matters to distort it. Knowing what happened in the past helps orient what should happen in the future. The Democratic Charter was not invoked in June last year not because the United States did not support it but because many other countries, in a region that highly values sovereignty and is constantly on guard for U.S. intervention, were reluctant.

Luis Almagro’s most recent report goes straight for suspending Venezuela as a member of the OAS. This proposal has received a muted response from the region. Even Peru, the South American country that has been most vocal in criticizing Venezuela in the past month, expressed reservations about Almagro’s recommendation, and suggested that such a step would require prior consultations. Uruguay suggested it does not support invoking the Charter, as did Costa Rica. This suggests that the initiative could get fewer votes than the 20 cast in support of discussion of Almagro’s first report in June 2016.

Fortunately, the Secretary General’s report only suggests that the case be taken up and his recommendations for the concrete actions to pursue are just that, recommendations. The Permanent Council could invoke the Charter but take it in a different direction, putting together fact-finding and diplomatic efforts that would stand a better chance of generating consensus.

But this will only happen if member countries that have supported the Democratic Charter being applied to Venezuela in the past engage member countries who have not supported it, listening and debating in order to form common understandings and proposals for action.

What the Post misses is that full-throated, public support from the Trump administration would not help achieve this goal. Everyone already knows the United States supports invoking the Democratic Charter on Venezuela—as it did in 2016. Loud support by the Trump administration would turn off foreign leaders concerned about what their constituents might see as intervention. Wavering countries will be most convinced by other Latin American countries, and these latter should be given the space to lead.