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The OAS is AWOL on Venezuela

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Organization of American States is betraying its essential mission to defend representative democracy.

The Organization of American States (OAS) sits silent on Venezuela, even as political unrest, government violence against student demonstrators, and economic catastrophe threaten to tear that country apart. At long last, the regional body that years ago was sequestered by Venezuela’s petro-diplomacy has been bound and gagged.

The “permanent council,” comprised of the region’s ambassadors, was set to meet last week to review events in Venezuela, at the request of Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli. The meeting was abruptly “postponed” after Dominican president Danilo Medina, whose ambassador is the council's chairman, followed Venezuela’s instructions to delay his envoy’s return to OAS headquarters in Washington. The Dominican chairman arrived only yesterday and will convene the council at the convenience of the Venezuelan government.

The OAS’s member states made history on the fateful day of September 11, 2001, by adopting the Inter-American Democratic Charter and making the promotion and defense of democracy one of the organization’s essential missions. It remains to be seen if it has any relief to offer the people of Venezuela at this perilous hour.

The blame must be shared by the two dozen governments that have let themselves be bullied or bought off by Venezuela.

The OAS is where governments — not people — have their say. And, it operates by consensus, rarely putting matters to a majority vote. Even if a significant group of countries were determined to adopt a simple resolution of concern, such an action would be unthinkable over the objections of the Venezuelan representative. However, a meeting of the council would require the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to explain its use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, and, more important, it would give other countries an opportunity to weigh in on worrisome events in a sister republic.

Ideally, the OAS would afford governments the opportunity to actually do something about willful violations of the Democratic Charter or human rights conventions. But, today, the OAS is less than the sum of its parts. Since the late Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez and his acolytes began to work as a unit in regional fora a decade ago, they have succeeded in undermining a powerful inter-American consensus for promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Their goal was to dismantle regional organizations that have been built by decades of diplomacy.

Does the former coca grower who is Bolivia’s president have any use for a commission that fights drug trafficking? Does a caudillo waging a campaign against the independent media in Ecuador have any use for a special rapporteur on freedom of expression? Does a man who is rigging the rules in Nicaragua to hold on to power indefinitely have any use for the separation of powers? Does the regime whose thugs are beating protesters in Venezuela have any use for the American Declaration of Human Rights or the Inter-American Democratic Charter? Of course not. However, these are the men who have hijacked the OAS.

But they have had help on the inside: José Miguel Insulza was elected secretary general of the OAS in 2005, winning U.S. backing only after he proclaimed that, "elected governments that do not govern democratically should be held accountable by the OAS." Insulza has betrayed that pledge repeatedly, turning a blind eye to abuses of constitutional order, separation of powers, independent judiciaries, and fundamental human rights in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

OAS Secretary General Insulza has turned a blind eye to abuses of constitutional order, separation of powers, independent judiciaries, and fundamental human rights in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

An admirer of Fidel Castro, Insulza even helped engineer the end of the suspension of the dictatorship in Cuba in 2009. As if to underscore his hypocrisy, the only occasions on which he adopted an activist role was when he sprang to the defense of leftists who were ousted from power in Honduras and Paraguay.

Many assume that Insulza was following the instructions of the Chávez regime. Even worse, he appears to have made a selfish effort to curry favor with the leftist base in his native Chile to advance pathetic campaigns for the presidency and the senate. Until Insulza leaves office in 418 days, or finds a safe seat on the Santiago city council, the OAS will betray its essential mission to defend representative democracy.

Of course, the responsibility for the OAS’s fecklessness can hardly be pinned on a handful of caudillos and a political hack from Chile. The blame must be shared by the two dozen governments that have let themselves be bullied or bought off by Venezuela.

Sooner or later, the OAS permanent council will sit and consider Venezuela, and maybe sit some more. But the day will come when the people of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and sister nations will be heard. And what they will have to say about the OAS’s collective indifference will be both damning and deserved.

Roger Noriega served as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and ambassador to the Organization of American States in the George W. Bush administration. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.

FURTHER READING: Noriega also writes "For Venezuelan Regime, the Party’s Over," "Latins Rally to Restore Human Rights Panel," and "Post-Chávez Crisis an Opportunity for Venezuela." 

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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