The immigration crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border. Tens of thousands fleeing drought and poverty in Central America. Political upheaval in Nicaragua and Honduras. Society-destroying corruption in the Caribbean and South America. A failing peace process in Colombia.
As the Organization of American States meets for its 49th General Assembly on Wednesday, the region is bursting with political, social and ethical problems.
But the issue that’s likely to overshadow them all is the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela, and the fate of increasingly desperate migrants who are threatening to destabilize the region.
The official title of this year’s meeting in Medellin, Colombia, which brings together representatives from 34 nations, is “Innovating to Strengthen Hemispheric Multilateralism,” but few are talking about the issue.
Asked if the Venezuelan crisis would be the top item on the agenda, OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, “Absolutely.”
Venezuela’s exodus is not only raising alarms “on this continent but around the world, due to the deep humanitarian crisis the country is suffering, which has affected millions of people,” he said.
Gustavo Tarre, who was appointed by Venezuelan interim President Juan Guaidó as ambassador to the OAS, said that along with the migration crisis he’s also hoping to convince his colleagues that there is no such thing as free and fair elections in Venezuela with Nicolás Maduro in the presidential palace.
“Maduro, by definition, is a cheat,” Tarre told the Miami Herald.
But what the OAS might be able to do about the crisis remains unclear.
Colombia is expected to present a resolution asking for a regional approach to Venezuelan migration and “to urge the international community as a whole to increase its solidarity in the form of international cooperation resources.”
Venezuela’s neighbors have, for the most part, been accommodating to the migrants, allowing Venezuelans to enter freely and giving many access to temporary work permits. But that’s starting to change. This month alone, Chile and Peru began requiring Venezuelans to apply for visas before entering the country — an impossible task for many.
Juan Viloria, the coordinator of the Coalition for Venezuela, an association of 31 Venezuelan diaspora groups from across the hemisphere, will be meeting with Almagro and other representatives on Wednesday.
The group’s demands are simple: for the Americas to speak with one voice when it comes to Venezuelan migrants. In particular, the coalition is asking for regional standards so that migrants — many of them making brutal overland journeys — aren’t surprised with last-minute border closures and new regulations.
“We want these decisions to be made in a coordinated fashion,” Viloria said. “We can’t have one border being closed and another one being opened and not have any warning.”
And because passports, ID cards and birth certificates have become difficult and sometimes impossible to find in Venezuela, the coalition is also asking for a regional ID card for Venezuelan migrants.
But primarily, the coalition is asking the region to “recognize the complex humanitarian crisis that Venezuela is going through,” he said.
David Smolansky, the head of the OAS working group on Venezuelan migration, says he also hopes to convince the region’s leaders that they need to take a unified approach to the crisis, so that no one particular country gets overwhelmed.
One of the key moments of the meeting, which runs through Friday, will come when Smolansky releases the OAS report on Venezuelan migration. Among its findings, the study is expected to state that, unless there are dramatic political changes, more than 6 million Venezuelans will have fled the country by 2020, putting it on par with or surpassing the migratory crisis in Syria.
“Naturally, the content of that report will lead to additional actions in our region,” Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told reporters this week. “This is a regional and a global crisis... More than 4 million Venezuelans have already left, and we have [1.3] million Venezuelans in Colombia and the crisis keeps growing and growing and growing.”
Unlike past events, this is the first year the Maduro regime won’t have a voice at the General Assembly. His government began withdrawing from the OAS in protest in 2017, but the definite rupture came when the OAS earlier this year recognized the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Guaidó, as the country’s interim president, arguing that Maduro had clung to power through fraudulent elections.
Another moment that might produce fireworks: when a group of countries, including the U.S. and Canada, try to take Nicaragua to task amid that nation’s political turmoil.
A resolution titled “The Situation in Nicaragua,” calls on leader Daniel Ortega and the opposition to resume negotiations to find a “peaceful solution to the political crisis” that has led to more than 320 deaths since protests began in April, 2018. It’s also demanding that the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights be allowed into the country to assess the situation.
Unlike Venezuela, Nicaragua’s hands will not be tied. Ortega’s Foreign Minister Denis Moncada is likely to try to rally allies in the Caribbean and parts of South America to resist OAS pressure.
Based in Washington, D.C., the OAS is comprised of every independent country in the hemisphere, except for Cuba. And while its relevance has often been questioned, the group has grown more vocal and combative under the leadership of Almagro, who took the helm in 2015.
“I would say that in these last years the OAS has become an effective institution,” Venezuela’s Tarre, said. “Thanks to Almagro, Venezuela has taken on a leading role at the OAS.”