Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Ex-leaders can play a big role in Venezuela

The recent visit by three former Latin American leaders to Venezuela has not only helped draw attention to their assertion that the region’s democracies have “abandoned” Venezuela, but has shown that former presidents can play a larger-than-expected role in pushing for democracy in Latin America.

Contrary to what one may conclude from just reading the headlines, the most relevant impact of the two-day visit to Venezuela by former presidents Andres Pastrana of Colombia, Sebastian Piñera of Chile and Felipe Calderón of Mexico last weekend wasn’t that they got significant media attention for meeting with oppositionists, and for being denied a visit to jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

What was much more significant was that they forced their own countries’ governments to come to their defense. After Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called the three foreign visitors bums, coup-plotters, and claimed that their trip had been paid by drug traffickers, Colombia and Chile came out with statements of support for their former presidents, despite the fact that they are government opponents at home. Colombia went a step further by saying in a Foreign Ministry statement that “we hope that Leopoldo Lopez will recover his freedom as soon as possible.”

I talked with the three former presidents after their trip to Venezuela, and — especially in the case of Pastrana and Piñera — they seemed to agree that their visit helped push their own countries to pay more attention to the violation of political freedoms in Venezuela. So far, most Latin American countries have failed to meet their commitments under regional treaties to defend democratic freedoms in the region, they said.

“What’s most important of Colombia’s Foreign Ministry statement is not that it supported Andres Pastrana, but that it’s the first time that Colombia is asking for Leopoldo Lopez’s freedom,” Pastrana told me.

Pastrana added that larger groups of former presidents, such the Club of Madrid, which gathers 95 former heads of state, should start visiting Venezuela and meeting with opposition leaders there. “We are going to propose it,” Pastrana told me.

In Chile, Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz supported Piñera’s visit to Venezuela, stressing that it was a private visit. He said about the visit, “We can’t tell him what to say or not to say, but the proper thing to do is to support it.” Shortly thereafter, 13 former ministers from Chile’s left-of-center ruling coalition issued a statement saying that “no Chilean progressive can remain passive regarding the Venezuelan situation.”

Mexico’s government was mum on Calderón’s visit . Calderón told me he had no complaints, because he had received support from the Mexican embassy in Caracas, but added that “we all have to act in a more pro-active way” to support basic freedoms in Venezuela, because “there is a wall of indifference” regarding what is happening in the South American country.

My opinion: As opposed to the old joke according to which ex-presidents are like Chinese vases — they are very important, but useless — Pastrana, Piñera and Calderón have proven that former presidents can play a big role in helping free political prisoners and restore democratic freedoms in Venezuela at a time when the region’s biggest governments are looking the other way.

The next show of support for Venezuela’s opposition should not be a visit by a group of three former presidents, but by a group of 30 or 40. Just as Maduro and all other leaders regularly meet with opposition politicians in the countries they visit, there is no reason why current or former Latin American leaders cannot do the same in Venezuela.

There are more than a half-dozen clubs of former democratic heads of state where former Latin American leaders are active, including the Club of Madrid, the Socialist International, the Centrist Democrat International, the Montevideo Circle and the Global Center for Development and Democracy.

Instead of putting out statements in support of democracy, which are read by very few, they should organize a massive visit to Venezuela in advance of this year’s legislative elections there. A massive visit by former presidents go a long way in helping gather diplomatic support in Latin America to push Maduro for free and fair elections in Venezuela, which will be the only way to end that country’s deepening crisis.