Venezuela in the OAS Spotlight

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David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey 

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s May 31st invocation of the body’s Democratic Charter has generated a hemisphere-wide debate over the situation in Venezuela. It will be debated on Thursday in the Permanent Council (PC) in response to Almagro’s request. The Maduro government has responded by calling into question Almagro’s leadership, which will be debated today in the Permanent Council (PC). Both debates will have major ramifications for Venezuelan democracy and Venezuela’s regional relationships.

Invocation of the Democratic Charter

On Thursday, June 23, the OAS Permanent Council (comprised of 34 ambassadors to the OAS) is set to meet to analyze Almagro’s 114-page report, in which he laid out his arguments for invoking Article 20 of the Democratic Charter, and offered eight recommendations for the Venezuelan government, including a recall referendum this year.

While some have characterized the Secretary General as seeking Venezuela’s suspension from the OAS, this is not quite right. At this point invoking the Democratic Charter only calls on the PC to “undertake a collective assessment of the situation.”

This discussion would lead to a vote on whether or not there has been an “alteration of the constitutional regime impairing the democratic order.” This would require a simple majority (18 votes) to pass. It would allow the Permanent Council to explore diplomatic efforts to “promote the normalization of the situation and restore democratic institutions.” This would lead to some specific recommendation, for which SG Almagro has already provide eight suggestions.

If these recommendations are not heeded by Venezuela, a two thirds majority (24 votes) of the Permanent Council could convene an Extraordinary General Assembly, in which the foreign ministers of OAS member countries could then vote on whether to suspend Venezuela from the organization. This too would require a two thirds majority.

The likelihood of Venezuela’s suspension in the near future is slim. Early proof of this came last week, when 19 countries voted to support a resolution submitted by Venezuela that, among other things, calls on Almagro to cease any activity that is not specifically granted to him under the OAS Charter, and that reflects or gives the impression of a lack of impartiality or independence.

The resolution also schedules a meeting for today, June 21 for the PC to review Almagro’s actions. As analyst James Bosworth has argued, this was an effort by Venezuela to force member country’ hands and show their support and it largely worked. Indeed this makes it highly unlikely that the PC will decide that there has been an “alteration of the constitutional regime.”

Today’s meeting will also see an update on the UNASUR dialogue efforts from former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who is leading the initiative alongside former  Panamanian President Martín Torrijos and the ex-President of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández.

At the OAS General Assembly last week, fifteen countries issued an outside statement last week calling on Venezuela to follow its own constitution, condemn violence, and support the UNASUR dialogue process. However, the fact that this statement was issued on the side, rather than introduced to the General Assembly, suggests these countries didn’t think they would get the support of the full body.

And not all of these fifteen will necessarily support a decision that there has been an alteration in the constitutional order, as some of them have reasons not to want to take a strong stand regarding Venezuela. In Foreign Policy, Michael Shifter argued:

Brazil’s interim center-right government, led by Michel Temer, is also loath to take a strong stand on Venezuela. With ever-widening corruption scandals that have now ensnared him and a controversial impeachment process underway, Temer’s government is on shaky ground and faces serious questions about its legitimacy. Colombia, meanwhile, cannot afford to irritate Maduro as its peace process with the FARC rebels draws to a conclusion.

However, if there is a robust discussion and vote, it could have a significant impact on regional perceptions of Venezuela. Significant support for Almagro’s initiative would heighten critical discourses regarding Venezuela. Meager support would weaken Almagro’s leadership and strengthen the Maduro government in its current course.

Venezuela is clearly concerned about it. On Monday they made a last ditch effort to have the session cancelled. This follows a week of government spin suggesting Venezuela had already won the battle in the OAS.

Venezuela’s Opposition

One interesting element to watch in the coming days will be the response of the Venezuelan opposition Last week, National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup announced plans to address the Permanent Council regarding the situation.

Speaking to the OAS directly would be unusual for a legislator, as it would break with a longstanding tradition in international bodies of the executive branch representing the government. In 2014 opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado was expelled from the then-PSUV-controlled National Assembly for an unauthorized address to the OAS.

Chavismo no longer controls the AN. But Ramos addressing the PC will almost certainly have repercussions in Venezuela. Maduro has actually said he has “a sentence for Ramos” and says he wants him to be put on trial on national television for usurping presidential functions.

Venezuela’s Almagro Resolution

The full text of Venezuela’s resolution regarding Almagro is not readily available online, and does not appear to be included in the resolutions published on the General Assembly website. However, the draft document initially submitted by the government of Venezuela is available for download here. There is some very strong language in the original draft resolution, but it is not clear whether it made it into the final version.

For instance, the draft resolution includes a demonstration of “deep concern over the conduct of the Secretary General of the Organization…especially the abuse of power and overreach regarding the attributes established by the OAS Charter, in the General Norms regarding the function of the Secretary General and regarding the violation and disrespect for the Code of Ethics of the Secretary General.”

Without seeing the final approved resolution it’s unclear whether this was kept, but we do know that the final version at least included the call for Almagro to cease activity deemed impartial or lacking independence, because the Foreign Ministry of Costa Rica specifically cited this language in its rejection of the resolution.

The character of this discussion will have an important impact on Almagro’s leadership and the discussion of Venezuela on Thursday. A vigorous discussion with many complaints would seriously weaken him and strengthen Venezuela. Conversely, a mild discussion of Venezuela’s resolution, or a discussion with strong support voiced for Almagro beyond the US delegation, would strengthen him and weaken Venezuela.