Is OAS move on Venezuela another effect of U.S.-Cuba détente?

Secretary-General Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States. Almagro remains a major critic of Venezuela’s president.
Secretary-General Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States. Almagro remains a major critic of Venezuela’s president. McClatchy

A controversial decision Tuesday by the secretary-general of the Organization of American States to invoke the group’s Democratic Charter against Venezuela may be another sign of how U.S.-Cuba rapprochement is helping to change hemispheric dynamics.

In a 132-page report, Secretary-General Luis Almagro laid out a scathing portrayal of the worsening crisis in Venezuela that, he said, demanded “immediate changes.” He pressed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to allow a referendum by the end of the year that could result in Maduro’s removal from office.

“No administrative procedure can be an obstacle to the decision of the people,” Almagro wrote in his report. “This recall does not belong to the government or the opposition but the people of Venezuela.”

Invoking the OAS’s Democratic Charter, which requires that all members be ruled democratically, could mean Venezuela’s suspension from the hemispheric organization and is a sign of how plunging oil prices have cut the country’s influence.

If the OAS, as our region’s pre-eminent institution founded on democratic principles, does not speak out now, when will it?

Michael Fitzpatrick, U.S. ambassador to OAS

Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College, said that ever since U.S. relations with Cuba had improved, even the left had lost interest in Venezuela’s anti-American foreign policy.

“At the last Summit of the Americas, for instance, the number of countries that publicly expressed solidarity with Venezuela in its dispute with the United States was already very low, a sign of Venezuela’s declining prestige and rising U.S. prestige,” he said.

Last week, Venezuela’s top diplomat in the United States accused Almagro of “illegally” trying to invoke the hemispheric organization’s Democratic Charter, saying that right belongs only to member states and not officials of the organization.

Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez railed against Almagro for trying to dictate when Venezuela needs to hold a referendum.

“Who is this guy to say that? He’s not a judge,” Alvarez said. “It’s a sign of somebody who instead of playing the role as a diplomatic leader, he’s embracing the political interest of a sector of Venezuela.”

On Tuesday, Maduro called on his nation to “rebel” against the OAS move. He also said he planned to sue the opposition head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, who had been demanding that the OAS take a tougher stance.

“To ask an international body to intervene in Venezuela is treason,” Maduro told a rally of transportation workers. He said he would begin legal action against Ramos on Wednesday.

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Relations said Almagro’s decision “violates Venezuela’s laws and constitution.”

“Venezuela is an example of sovereignty and self-determination,” the ministry said. “Imperialists and their local agents want to demolish this insurmountable wall of dignity and sovereignty, built on the historic strength of our liberators.”

Who is this guy to say that? He’s not a judge.

Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS

The United States has been one of the most outspoken members of the OAS on the matter. Secretary of State John Kerry said in April that the United States supported the idea of invoking the Democratic Charter.

During an OAS meeting in early May to discuss invoking the charter, Michael Fitzpatrick, the interim U.S. ambassador to the OAS, pressed his international colleagues to think about protecting the rights of the Venezuelan people.

“If the OAS, as our region’s pre-eminent institution founded on democratic principles, does not speak out now, when will it?” Fitzpatrick said.

For many years, Cuba and Venezuela were able to play a role that they were victims of U.S. aggression. Maduro could also point to Cuba to label U.S. criticism as a broader plot against both countries, said Gregory Weeks, the chairman of the department of political science and public administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist.

“The U.S. opening to Cuba helps remove that from the agenda,” Weeks said. “It makes it easier for Latin American governments to criticize Venezuela without looking like they’re just joining the empire, because Cuba is much more positive now to the United States.”

Weeks went further to note that an article in the Cuban Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, Granma, had criticized Almagro but didn’t defend the Maduro government or even mention the United States.

Not all experts agree. Many said it was difficult to imagine a scenario where Latin American governments were ready to adopt punitive polices against Venezuela. Latin American leaders have shown little interest in taking drastic actions against one another; the tables could always be turned on them.

It’s true that rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba has put Venezuela in a very difficult situation, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. But he cautioned against overstating this as a dramatic political tide.

“I think all of this has to do more with Almagro being completely determined to take a stand and to use his faculties to the maximum to try to deal with the deterioration of Venezuela,” Shifter said.

Ecuador joined several other governments, including those of Argentina and Chile, that publicly expressed solidarity with Maduro and raised concerned about Almagro’s “systematic aggressions” against Venezuela.

Shifter said invoking the Democratic Charter also carried risks for Almagro, a former Uruguayan diplomat.

“He’s got to be a little bit careful,” Shifter said. “It’s OK to talk about defending principles and making some recommendations. But you have to be careful about going a little bit too far.”

Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald contributed to this story from Bogotá,Colombia.