Are the Americas turning a blind eye to chaos in Venezuela?

The painted image of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez, right, dwarfs that of President Nicolás Maduro on a wall in downtown Caracas.
The painted image of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez, right, dwarfs that of President Nicolás Maduro on a wall in downtown Caracas.

The past two weeks have seen the explosive escalation of protests — some violent — across Venezuela. And with new developments surfacing — including Tuesday’s surrender of opposition leader Leopoldo López to Venezuela’s police on trumped-up charges — the end is not immediately in sight.

Most of the protests have resulted in peaceful stand-offs, and the majority have focused on the worsening economy, unstable citizen security and widespread corruption.

But popular opposition leaders like Maria Corina Machado, a deputy in Venezuela's National Assembly, called for protests on Feb. 12 demanding the resignation of President Nicolás Maduro. The demonstrations began peacefully, but turned violent, with three confirmed deaths, at least 60 injured, and more than 100 protesters and students arrested.

And the government’s response has been no less concerning.

President Maduro publicly criticized media outlets for allegedly manipulating information. The government pulled off air — mid-coverage and without explanation — Colombia’s NTN24, one of the only independent outlets reporting live on the events. Even Twitter, a popular alternative to state media for disseminating information, was the target of government censure.

López’s surrender to Venezuelan authorities is representative of perhaps the most concerning development: the government’s willingness to silence dissent even in its most legitimate form.

So how did Venezuela get here?

Already devolving into near-chaos, these demonstrations are the most extensive that Maduro has faced in his first year in office, driving him deeper into the shadow of his enigmatic predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

The legitimacy of Maduro’s leadership was contested from the outset, with many suggesting that electoral fraud was responsible for his narrow victory over opposition leader Henrique Capriles. And those doubts persist.

Insecurity and the country’s crumbling economy are among the most challenging issues facing Venezuela, and the protests’ implications are immense. But regional stability hangs in the balance as well. The stability of Colombia’s negotiations to end five decades of armed conflict; the future of transnational drug trafficking; criminality in the region — all of these will be profoundly affected by this crisis.

In particular, ALBA, PDVSA and the Petrocaribe oil-assistance program are among the most vulnerable if Venezuela implodes — and their collapse would send shockwaves throughout the region, including Cuba.

So amid all of this, why have the region’s democracies remained so absent over the past weeks?

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and Mercosur voiced their strong support for President Maduro — to no great surprise, given their ties to Venezuela. But the region’s less ideological multilateral organizations — UNASUR, CELAC, AND CARICOM — have hesitated to characterize the chaos and violence in Venezuela.

Most notably, the Organization of American States (OAS), arguably the regional body best positioned to push back against the apparent human-rights violations and threats to democratic integrity, gave a meek response to the developments.

The only definitive voice or leadership on the issue has come from ALBA and Mercosur — with no multilateral leadership condemning Maduro’s government for the violence and human-rights violations it perpetrates, turning a blind eye to Venezuela’s disregard for democratic institutions, failure to protect dissenting views and flagrant disrespect for civil liberties — press freedom chief among them. And all of this raises another concern: Is the region surrendering its role in advancing these causes — causes so central to our hemispheric identity?

The Obama administration released preliminary statements this week, calling for an inclusive dialogue on the protection of fundamental freedoms and citizen security, even in light of Maduro's recent expulsion of three U.S. diplomats.

While this is good enough for now, defining a cohesive policy for Venezuela will be necessary moving forward.

Ultimately, it is not always practical for the U.S. government to take the lead in regional discussions on Venezuela. But in light of the fundamental human rights being threatened — and given the lack of a definitive hemispheric voice condemning recent developments — now could be the time for the United States to step up, perhaps, as a start, by calling for an emergency OAS meeting on its own terms.

The stakes are too high to do any less.

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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