When Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro pulled his embattled nation out of the Organization of American States in April, he threw a party to mark the event.
In his telling, the OAS — based in Washington, D.C. — was little more than a U.S. lapdog and a key part of the regional strategy to topple him.
Yet Venezuela still has a seat at the table at this year’s OAS General Assembly, kind of.
Gustavo Tarre, a former oil executive, was appointed by Maduro’s rival, Venezuelan interim President Juan Guaidó, to represent the nation at the OAS.
And as the body holds its annual meeting in Medellin, Colombia, this week, Tarre will be fighting to keep Venezuelan issues on the table, and his job.
Speaking to the Miami Herald, Tarre, 72, said his goals for this meeting are to advocate for the more than 4 million Venezuelans who have fled the country in recent years and convince his colleagues that free and fair elections aren’t possible with Maduro still in the Miraflores presidential palace.
But it’s a hard sell for many nations that recoil from the idea of the OAS meddling in domestic affairs.
“There are many countries that are democratic but, regrettably, close their eyes when faced with the realities of Venezuela,” Tarre said. “They know about the actions of the Maduro dictatorship but they look for any argument for him to stay in power.”
Tarre, along with Guaidó and the United States, believe that one of the few ways forward in Venezuela is holding new elections. But Tarre argues it has to be without Maduro in office.
“Everybody wants Venezuela to hold an election, but we want a real election, where candidates are free to register, where parties are free to register, where public money doesn’t favor a particular candidate and where voters aren’t pressured and bribed through social programs,” he said. Free elections require “a series of circumstances that cannot exist with Maduro there.”
What should be an easier conversation to have is the need for a regional approach to dealing with the Venezuelan exodus. More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled in recent years — escaping the economic collapse and political repression — and that number could top 6 million by 2020.
The outflows are starting to overwhelm Venezuela’s neighbors.
“This is a crisis that’s strictly man made,” Tarre said. “It wasn’t an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcanic eruption or even a war. It’s simply bad politics, bad management and too much corruption. That’s what created this disaster and that makes Maduro’s exit from the presidency necessary.”
The OAS meeting comes as elements of the international community are pushing Maduro and Guaido to negotiate their way out of the crisis. Tarre says that’s a mistake.
“Any politician who says he doesn’t negotiate isn’t a politician,” Tarre said. “But what’s happened in Venezuela is that we’ve had four negotiation processes [in the past] that the government has systematically ignored. It doesn’t mean negotiations are bad, but we have to approach them in a different way.”
Tarre’s debut at the OAS comes as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, recently visited Venezuela. While she met with opposition leaders and victims of government repression, she also met with Maduro and other officials that many in the international community consider illegitimate.
“That Mrs. Bachelet denounced torture, repression and [political] prisoners was positive,” Tarre said of her visit, “but she did it as she was meeting with the torturers, murderers and jailers...There’s a contradiction there, a bipolarity that I personally don’t like.”
Tarre’s place at the OAS table is likely to face resistance from Venezuela’s remaining allies, including Nicaragua and Bolivia. And he said he might face a motion challenging his position.
Tarre said he had no choice but to “keep fighting” for his country. But he’s less clear about how long that fight might take.
When Guaido first took on Maduro in January — saying it was his constitutional duty to assume the presidency — Tarre said he thought Maduro’s end would come fast.
“If I were a betting man I would have given up because I’ve been wrong so many times,” he said. “Against all odds, Maduro remains in power, but I’m sure he’s on his way out, just don’t ask me for a date.”