Venezuela and the OAS Democratic Charter

David Smilde

Yesterday, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro put into motion a process which could lead to the suspension of Venezuela from the international organization. Almagro submitted a 132-page report to Ambassador Juan José Arcuri of Argentina, who serves as the President of the OAS Permanent Council, calling on it to hold urgent meetings from June 10-20 to discuss the situation in Venezuela and make proposals, including the possible convening of the OAS General Assembly (which consists of member state’s country’s foreign ministers, not OAS ambassadors). The General Assembly could then discuss further measures, and if the situation on the ground is not addressed, it could hold a vote on whether to suspend Venezuela. This would require a two-thirds majority vote, of OAS member states.

Here are some thoughts on this important development.

Multilateral Engagement is Key

On this blog we have frequently criticized U.S. policy towards Venezuela for being unilateral, and recommended that it instead focus on multilateral institutions. Doing so requires actual diplomacy. Actors need to put forward arguments and discuss them with their regional peers, who will inevitably range from supportive to incredulous to hostile.

The process is slow and frustration, but generates actual debate and understanding among stakeholders regarding complex situations. In this sense, Almagro’s bringing this issue to the OAS through the mechanisms provided by the Democratic Charter is a positive step and could prevent some of the self-defeating unilateral measures currently being discussed in the U.S. government.

The big caveat here is that true multilateral engagement means not only that countries discuss and try to come to agreement regarding a given situation. It means that if there is not a broad agreement, they take a step back, consider, discuss some more, and wait for a change that could facilitate an agreement. The failure to reach a multilateral agreement should not be interpreted by the United States or other countries as giving them carte blanche for pursuing aggressive unilateral measures. Put differently, if you only play the multilateral game as long as the results favor you, you are not actually playing the multilateral game.

Other Efforts at Dialogue

There is actually another multilateral effort underway, led by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). In recent weeks UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper has been pushing for dialogue. He recruited former president of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández, former president of Panama Martín Torrijos, and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to lead efforts.

This has been embraced by the Maduro government; indeed each of these three figures has had warm relations with Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in the past. It has understandably been received with some skepticism by the Venezuelan opposition. However, some progress has been made in discussing the necessary groundwork for dialogue. Samper has even spoken with the Pope about the initiative, who has already expressed the Vatican’s willingness to facilitate dialogue.

Will Almagro’s initiative in the OAS help or hurt UNASUR’s initiative? It will quite likely increase the Maduro government’s motivation to make an UNASUR dialogue happen. The Maduro government has continually argued that the OAS is a relic of the imperialist past, and new multilateral organizations like UNASUR are the future. This will provide a chance to demonstrate that.

However, Almagro’s initiative will likely reduce the motivation of the Venezuelan opposition to dialogue. If they think the application of the OAS Democratic Charter will strengthen their position, they are not likely to sincerely push for a dialogue that would demonstrate democracy in Venezuela. They could simply put forward unreasonable demands for even sitting at the table with the government, as a way to make sure it does not happen.

The Maduro Government Actually Cares about This

Maduro’s quick response to Almagro yesterday was that he could “stick his document up whatever space it fits in.” The night before Almagro’s announcement Maduro had called on the OAS to “exit Venezuela and America.” One would think that the Maduro government might simply dismiss this as an imperialist maneuver and set it aside. However, since the application of the Democratic Charter was first discussed in the OAS, the Maduro government has energetically argued against its application. Maduro even visited a number of Caribbean countries, most likely to shore up support for an eventual debate in the OAS.

This is understandable because being considered a democracy is very important to Venezuela’s domestic and international legitimacy. Whatever its democratic deficits, the Venezuelan government has assiduously organized and held elections over the past seventeen years precisely to maintain its democratic credibility. Suddenly not being recognized by its neighbors as a democracy could seriously undermine its legitimacy and could embolden those for whom undemocratic measures would be justified against a government internationally recognized as undemocratic. In multiple ways, having the OAS declare Venezuela as having suffered a rupture of democratic order could cause a crisis of governance.

Timing and Focus are Important

Thus, the Democratic Charter actually holds some sway over the Maduro government and should be used judiciously. It seems to me that Almagro is playing this card too early. Invoking the Democratic Charter would be most convincing at a moment in which there is a clear rupture of the democratic order—if, for example, the Maduro government were to close down the National Assembly, or fail to recognize an electoral result.

There is an important debate to be had about what to do in cases of gradual deteriorations of democracy and where to draw the line. But in terms of actually gaining the support of other countries in the region for measures and engagement that could have a positive impact, Almagro’s 132-page report covering everything from political prisoners to inflation to Zika seems to lack focus. Complex debates are intellectually satisfying but tend not to provide clear and compelling options.

Of course the OAS is just as complex and full of intrigue as any other political body, and timing is tricky. It seems that Almagro’s letter was released on May 31st to beat to the punch the discussion of an alternative, much softer resolution proposed by Argentina. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Almagro can get the two-thirds vote he needs to apply the Democratic Charter. But if he gets considerable support, even if he comes up short, it could have significant influence in Venezuela. On the other hand, if Almagro gets only a handful of votes, or the initiative otherwise languishes, it will likely weaken his leadership, and the OAS’s ability to contribute solutions to Venezuela’s worsening crisis.