Venezuela Exhausts Uruguay’s Patience

As nations across the Americas react to the formation of Venezuela’s constituent assembly, the debate over the deepening Venezuelan crisis has played differently in different countries’ political contexts. One of the most interesting of these is taking place in Uruguay, a country that has at times adopted positions that set it apart from its neighbors.

Unlike Argentina and Brazil, which have said they view the constituent assembly as illegitimate and will not recognize the body, Uruguay has not commented on its legitimacy. Instead the government of President Tabare Vazquez has focused more energy on supporting a negotiated solution to the crisis. Although Uruguay has signed onto OAS statements critical of the Maduro government and issued calls for the government to free political prisoners, it has refrained from supporting Venezuela’s expulsion from regional bodies like the OAS and Mercosur, preferring to—in Vazquez’s words—“extend a fraternal hand to Venezuela.”

That is, until now. On August 5, Uruguay joined Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay in voting to suspend Venezuela from Mercosur until a “verified democratic order” is reestablished in the country. The joint statement signed by the countries’ foreign ministers also calls for an “immediate beginning of a process of political transition.”

So what changed? In an August 5 radio interview (listen to audio here, and see El Observador’s coverage here), Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa provided an in-depth look at the Vazquez administration’s thinking on the issue. According to Nin Novoa, the decision to vote for Venezuela’s suspension was made after Uruguay felt it had exhausted all attempts at encouraging the Venezuelan government to engage in dialogue with the opposition.

The Uruguayan government, he claimed, had reached out to its Venezuelan counterparts 22 separate times to enter into talks with the opposition, to no effect. Facing a “closed and outright refusal, there was no other alternative,” said the foreign minister, while also stressing that the suspension was a “political measure, not an economic one” that would not affect trade nor the economic conditions faced by Venezuela’s people.

Uruguay’s shift is important, as it is one of five countries (along with El Salvador, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Dominican Republic) that Venezuela’s government has named as potential mediators of eventual talks. By taking this step, Nin Novoa said, Uruguay’s government is asserting that “[all] actions have consequences, desired or undesired. The refusal to talk, to dialogue, to come to agreement has consequences.”

Nin Novoa also addressed the creation of Venezuela’s constituent assembly, saying that the Vazquez administration had urged Maduro to begin talks with the opposition before swearing in the body, and had joined with the Vatican in calling for it to be suspended.

However, when asked whether Uruguay would refuse to recognize the constituent assembly, Nin Novoa expressed skepticism over the premise of such a move.  “Countries recognize states and governments, they don’t recognize institutions,” said the foreign minister. “Does anyone think that a country should recognize the Uruguayan Court of Auditors, or the Uruguayan Electoral Court?”

The Vazquez administration’s support for Venezuela’s suspension from Mercosur has been met with criticism from other sectors in Uruguay’s ruling Broad Front (Frente Amplio – FA) coalition, although it has been backed by Vazquez’s own Socialist Party (part of the FA) as well as the opposition Colorado and National Parties.

Before the Mercosur meeting Vazquez enlisted the support of former President Jose Mujica, now a senator and head of the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP), who said he would support “whatever decision the government made.” However the MPP’s associated political movement, the Movement for National Liberation (MLN), has rejected Venezuela’s suspension from Mercosur, alongside other groups on the left of the FA.

This dissent within the FA over how to respond to Venezuela’s crisis will come to a head Friday, August 11, when the coalition will seek to adopt a position on whether to support the government’s stance on Venezuela’s suspension and on the Venezuelan crisis more broadly.

As this debate moves forward within the coalition, one element that is likely to come up is a comparison to the regional response to the political crisis in neighboring Brazil. Senator Constanza Moreira, a prominent figure in the FA and head of its Casa Grande sector, has openly challenged the government on why it has criticized Venezuela while, in her words, “forgiving the coup” in Brazil.

In the August 5 radio interview, Foreign Minister Nin Novoa dismissed such criticism, saying that the ouster of former President Dilma Rousseff followed a “procedure allowed for in the Constitution.”

Despite internal debate among factions of the governing coalition, the Vazquez administration is moving ahead in joining with international efforts to address the situation in Venezuela. Uruguay is one of 17 countries that sent representatives to a summit hosted by Peru on the issue on August 8, which could reportedly lead to the creation of a permanent forum for countries in the Americas to follow the ongoing crisis.