OAS Venezuela Debrief

Yesterday the OAS once again failed to come to agreement on a resolution regarding Venezuela’s authoritarian slide. It is a clear setback for those hoping to salvage electoral democracy in Venezuela. A clear resolution from the OAS would have been a rebuke to the Maduro government´s current direction, could have brought more “democratic Chavistas” to join Attorney General Luisa Ortega in opposing Madurismo, and would have set a more serious tone in the region for those who seek diplomatic solutions.

Instead the the Maduro government appears to have been strengthened by the OAS meetings, the domestic opposition is on its heels, Luisa Ortega is isolated, and the countries of the region have broken into finger-pointing and excuses.

Even so, over the course of the OAS discussions, support for the Maduro government was tepid at best. It was remarkable how many of the governments seeking to block agreement on a critical declaration by abstaining focused mainly on procedural issues, rather than going on record supporting the Maduro government or even using non-intervention as a reasoning. This was a wise move as the next day Venezuela itself presented ten proposals for consideration concerning human rights issues internal to other countries in the OAS, complicating their apparent ideological commitment to non-intervention. And Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez’s fiery rhetoric and insults only confirmed for countries of the region the recalcitrance of the Maduro government.

The Maduro government came out of the March 28 OAS Permanent Council meeting with a similar sense of triumph. But beyond the actual votes and resolutions, these meetings deepen countries´ knowledge, develop their commitment to the issue and prime them to act. When the Maduro government, less than 48 hours later tried to use the Supreme Court (TSJ) to grab what power the National Asembly had left, they were taken aback by the chorus of criticism from the region.

The OAS is in permanent session regarding Venezuela, suggesting they may take up the issue again. It is not clear that this would be helpful. Venezuela has stated clearly that it would not accept any sort of solution or initiative coming from the OAS and it is clear they are serious about that. Turning around now and accepting an OAS solution would clearly amount to a loss of face and it is unlikely they will do so.

What is more, there have been changes in the U.S. delegation that make it less likely the OAS itsef will be able to play a useful role. Up until this meeting, career diplomats in the State Department were leading the U.S. delegation. They assiduously and astutely sought to take a back seat and let regional leaders lead the search for a solution.

But this time around, new Trump appointee, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was in the U.S. seat. His declarations were relatively modest and unobjectionable. But he took a clear position supporting a contact group, making it easily-stamped as a U.S. initiative and pretty much sealing the fate of any resolution in the General Assembly. Indeed, Delcy Rodriguez relished the moment Sullivan spoke up, saying “Finally, the boss speaks.” The implicity suggestion was that the U.S. government was the puppeteer behind the scenes of the OAS. As a result a resolution that had received 20 votes on Monday, was not even brought up for a vote in a setting where it would have needed only 18 votes to pass.

Now it seems likely that the US will return to its traditional unilateral measures, which will complicate matters further.

At this stage, it would probably be better if the region’s OAS delegations suggested that they think it is time for UNASUR and CELAC to act. There is space. Both original documents called for some sort of group of friends or contact group, meaning that virtually everyone agreed to some version of this proposal. Now if UNASUR, CELAC or the Vatican could broker some sort of group of friends, most of these actors could claim victory, and the prospects would be brighter for such a group being able to engage both the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition.

That said, it is not clear that CELAC or UNASUR are up to the task. The May 2 CELAC meeting in San Salvador called by Venezuela failed to generate much interest, the May 13 meeting was postponed. There has been discussion of an UNASUR initiative, but leaders of the 12 countries have not been able to meet and they are yet to name a new Secretary General. To have a relevant impact it would have to be in the coming weeks. Once the Constituent Assembly gets underway in August, the situation will be much more difficult.