Andres Oppenheimer

Latin America’s shameful silence on Venezuela

Judging from the shamefully weak response from Latin America’s regional organizations such as the OAS and UNASUR to the arbitrary arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and other opposition leaders in Venezuela, it’s hard not to conclude that they have become mutual protection societies for repressive regimes.

Instead of immediately requesting the unconditional release of Ledezma, as well as that of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and other political prisoners who according to the United Nations have been victims of “arbitrary arrests,” the biggest regional organizations and virtually all Latin American leaders have largely looked the other way.

What’s the point of having these regional organizations, if they don’t even raise a finger to enforce their own charters calling for the respect and defense of democracy? And how to justify the absence of strong responses from Brazil and Mexico, the region’s biggest countries, whose presidents want to be seen as leaders of modern democracies?

Decades ago, when a Latin American country blatantly infringed democratic freedoms, such as Venezuela is doing now, the region’s most important democratic leaders condemned such events, and asked for urgent meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS) to press for corrective actions.

When former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori shut down his country’s Congress in 1992, the then pro-democracy government of Venezuela broke diplomatic relations with Peru, Argentina withdrew its ambassador, and Chile and several other countries officially requested that Peru be suspended from the OAS. And the OAS protested Fujimori’s action, forcing him to eventually call early elections for a new Congress a few months later.

Nothing even close to that happened after Thursday’s arrest of Ledezma, one of Venezuela’s top elected officials and leading opposition figure. At the time of this writing, no Latin American government had issued a strong condemnation of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s arbitrary arrest of Ledezma, nor requested an urgent OAS foreign ministers’ meeting to address the issue.

Maduro, who only earlier this month led official celebrations to honor a 1992 coup attempt by late President Hugo Chávez, has accused Ledezma and other opposition leaders of “conspiring and organizing” violent anti-government actions, which they categorically deny.

On Friday, outgoing OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza expressed his “alarm” over the latest events in Venezuela. But in the absence of any member country request to hold an extraordinary meeting, the group is basically watching Venezuelan events from afar.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) announced Friday it will send a delegation of foreign ministers from Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia to Venezuela at a yet to be determined date to observe the situation on the ground.

That may be good news for Maduro, since UNASUR is the regional group most sympathetic to his government. Last year, UNASUR dispatched the same three countries’ foreign ministers to Venezuela for an alleged mediation effort after student protests in Caracas left at least 43 dead.

But the UNASUR mediators not only failed to broker an agreement between Maduro and the opposition, but helped Maduro win precious time to diffuse the protests. The three countries’ foreign ministers did not get the release of all students arrested during the protests, nor a commitment from Maduro to meet some basic demands, such as the appointment of independent electoral authorities for this year’s legislative elections.

Earlier, in 2013, UNASUR had rushed to bless Maduro’s dubious election victory, after a pro-government electoral tribunal had proclaimed him winner by 1 percent of the vote despite opposition charges of massive fraud.

UNASUR President Ernesto Samper called Friday for “dialogue” in Venezuela, and criticized U.S. sanctions against about five dozen Venezuelan officials suspected of human rights abuses and corruption.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of Human Rights Watch, called Samper’s statements “highly unfortunate, because there’s absolutely no connection between the rightful U.S. cancelation of visas and freezing of assets of Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses and corruption, and the arbitrary detentions in Venezuela.”

Vivanco added that “we are seeing a daily deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Venezuela. The government is not accountable to any independent democratic institution there. The only thing left to stop this escalade of abuses is the regional community.”

My opinion: I agree. Trouble is, the regional community is leaderless. It’s no surprise that Venezuela’s closest allies — the populist demagogues ruling in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Argentina –— have remained silent.

What’s more difficult to understand is Mexico and Brazil’s failure to ask regional organizations to meet their duty and demand the respect for democratic institutions in all member countries.

Because of that, the OAS, UNASUR and other regional groups are increasingly looking as protectors of government abuses, rather than of democratic freedoms.