Venezuela will test Latin America’s faith in democracy, ex-presidents warn

From left: former Presidents Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, Alejandro Toledo of Peru and Jorge Quiroga of Bolivia at the Organization of American States in Washington on Friday.
From left: former Presidents Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, Alejandro Toledo of Peru and Jorge Quiroga of Bolivia at the Organization of American States in Washington on Friday. AP

A group of former Latin American presidents warned the hemisphere’s head of state Friday that the region’s commitment to democracy will be tested next week when the Organization of American States debates whether to intervene in Venezuela’s economic and political crisis.

The 30 former presidents, among them Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe and Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso, pledged their support for OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro’s call for Venezuela’s government to set a date for a recall referendum and to release political prisoners.

Three of the former presidents, Jorge Quiroga of Bolivia, Alejandro Toledo of Peru and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, met with Almagro on Friday. It was Almagro’s invocation of the OAS’s Democratic Charter that sparked the debate, now scheduled for next Thursday. Under the charter, members of the OAS agree to be governed democratically. If the OAS determines that Venezuela has violated the charter, it could be suspended from the 34-nation group.

“It’s sad that for a long time this beautiful building had marble but not much democracy, because the Democratic Charter was basically useless paper,” said Quiroga, who served as Bolivia’s president from Aug. 7, 2001, to Aug. 6, 2002. “Now we have a secretary-general who has activated it. . . . It’s time to stand up and be counted, if you believe in democracy.”

At issue is Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s refusal to schedule a recall referendum this year that could result in his removal from office. Venezuela’s opposition succeeded in collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions seeking the recall.

In a scathing 132-page report on the Venezuela political crisis, Almargo called last month for “immediate change” in Venezuela and said the government should scheduled the referendum for this year. The report triggered the coming debate.

It’s time to stand up and be counted, if you believe in democracy.

Jorge Quiroga, ex-president of Bolivia

Venezuela’s economic situation is dire. The country is short of food. The government has cut its workweek to two days because of a shortage of electricity, and hospitals reports that patients have died because of a lack of medicine and the energy needed to operate medical equipment.

Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves, yet the economy has plunged into chaos because of plummeting oil prices and financial mismanagement.

Officials at the Venezuelan Embassy could not immediately be reached for comment. Venezuela’s top diplomat in the United States, Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, has criticized Almagro, charging that the secretary-general is working unilaterally without the support of member states and is taking a political position against Venezuela.

The United States has stood behind Almagro, a former Uruguayan foreign minister. On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry urged Venezuela to release prisoners and recognize the authority of its opposition-led Congress.

“I emphasize the humanitarian dimensions,” Kerry told a meeting of the OAS General Assembly in the Dominican Republic. “Just this morning, we learned of people who are dying in a food line or waiting to get medical help that they need.”

But Almagro hasn’t gotten much support from the OAS’s other members, many of which are averse to taking disciplinary actions against a fellow state.

Finally, someone has raised their voice without fear.

Alejandro Toledo, ex-president of Peru

Several Venezuelan allies fought off an effort earlier this month that would have shown support for some of Almagro’s findings. Instead, the organization’s Permanent Council agreed to a watered-down declaration that only supported ongoing talks between the Venezuelan government and the country’s Congress. At Venezuela’s request, the Permanent Council will meet Tuesday with three former heads of state who are serving as go-betweens in those talks.

It’s not a surprise that the former presidents have backed Almagro’s call. The group has been very outspoken about the worsening conditions in Venezuela.

Before the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama City, the former presidents demanded that jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López be released, and they condemned the Venezuelan government for political persecution.

Toledo said the former presidents would not stop fighting. Children are dying, he said. More people have to speak out, he said. Leaders will have a chance to do so next week. He urged them to follow Almagro’s lead.

“Finally, someone has raised their voice without fear,” Toledo said.