Andres Oppenheimer

Kerry should denounce Venezuela’s ‘coup’

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on June 28, 2015.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on June 28, 2015. AP File

When I asked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in an interview whether Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has staged a de facto coup by refusing to accept his country’s opposition-controlled National Assembly’s laws, he refused to take the bait. Kerry said, “I don’t characterize it. I don’t use labels.”

But, before we get into whether he should have responded with a resounding “yes,” let’s take a close look at his full answer.

“What I do think is that there is gridlock in Venezuela, and that President Maduro is certainly ignoring what has been expressed by the will of the people in the recent elections. That’s very dangerous,” Kerry told me. He added, “We want to have a normal relationship with Venezuela. We are not engaged in any activity against the government of Venezuela.”

Pressing him on the issue, I mentioned to him that Venezuela’s National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup told me earlier last week that the National Assembly is planning to ask the 34-country Organization of American States (OAS) to apply its Democratic Charter against the Venezuelan president for rejecting veto-proof laws passed by the congress.

Under the OAS Democratic Charter signed by all OAS member countries, “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” Furthermore, the charter says that whenever there is “an unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order,” the OAS General Assembly can — with a two-thirds majority vote — suspend a country. That can affect the country’s ability to get loans from international financial institutions.

Asked whether he agrees with Ramos Allup’s plan, Kerry responded that “pressing for full democracy and full respect for elections is always a good idea.” But he cautioned: “How we will approach it has to be worked out carefully, so that it is successful and effective, rather than simply a symbolic move.”

Does that mean that you agree with the plan to invoke the OAS Democratic Charter? I insisted.

“In principle, yeah. We support the OAS charter,” Kerry responded. “And there is an OAS meeting coming up soon, and I think this will be a topic of conversation.”

Kerry’s response wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the Venezuelan National Assembly’s plan.

Most likely, the Obama administration does not want to publicly lead a diplomatic campaign against Maduro before it has the votes at the OAS to invoke the Democratic Charter. Many of the OAS Caribbean member countries still depend on Venezuelan oil subsidies, and may be fearful of voting against the Maduro government.

Kerry may be thinking that it’s better to wait until the Venezuelan opposition has enough votes at the OAS. Otherwise, if the Democratic Charter proposal is defeated at the OAS, it could become a major propaganda victory for the Maduro government.

In addition, Kerry may not want to put the United States at the forefront of a diplomatic offensive against the Maduro regime, because that would only give new ammunition to Maduro’s conspiracy theories about an alleged U.S. “imperialist” plot to oust him.

That may explain why Kerry refused to call Maduro’s actions a de facto coup, despite the fact that the Venezuelan president is not only breaking the rule of law by not recognizing veto-proof congressional laws, but has also recently threatened to cut the term of the recently elected National Assembly, and convene a new legislative election to replace it.

My opinion: Kerry’s cautious language about Venezuela’s break of the rule of law can be understood as a temporary strategy, but it can’t last much longer.

Maduro has in fact abolished congressional powers. He first stacked the Supreme Court with loyalist judges, and now uses his rubber-stamp Supreme Court to nullify congressional laws. That amounts to abolishing the congressional power to legislate.

Venezuela’s National Assembly is preparing to formally ask the OAS in coming weeks to apply its Democratic Charter on Venezuela. When it does so (Ramos Allup told me it may happen in late April or early May) the Obama administration and all democratic countries in the Americas should call things by their name.

They should clearly state that Maduro has carried out a coup, violating the will of the people in the Dec. 6 legislative elections. And they should enact the OAS Democratic Charter to get Maduro to respect his country’s constitution.

Watch the full interview with Secretary Kerry in “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sunday at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español