OAS must stop Venezuela from going over the brink

An activist wears a gag in the colors of Venezuela’s flag to protest his government's crackdown.
An activist wears a gag in the colors of Venezuela’s flag to protest his government's crackdown. Associated Press

The Organization of American States (OAS) met in Cancún, Mexico this month and utterly failed to take any effective action on its one crucial agenda item: how to halt Venezuela’s death spiral.

Needing a two-thirds vote, a handful of Venezuela’s Petrocaribe oil recipients and an even smaller number of ideological allies blocked a strong resolution supported by 20 hemisphere foreign ministers and the Trump administration in its first General Assembly. The timing of the White House roll-back of former President Obama’s normalization initiative with Cuba three days earlier could not have been worse for diplomats seeking to cajole and twist arms to get the missing three votes.

For the past 18 months, following the opposition winning two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, the post-Chávez regime of Nicolas Maduro and his socialist party have refused any serious negotiations or been willing to respect the role of the legislature. Polls show Maduro with barely 11 percent support. Since April, more than 70 protestors have been killed and thousands more injured and jailed. Now the government threatens to arm 500,000 militia.

The Maduro regime, condemned by its own attorney general as “disrupting constitutional order” and violating human rights and the rule of law, has doubled down on repression, sending civilian opponents to be tried in military courts, invalidating the National Assembly’s laws, and governing under an unlimited emergency decree. Maduro’s stacked Supreme Court (TSJ) also approved the regime plan to hold a rigged constituent assembly on July 30. Even as the OAS was meeting in Cancún, the Maduro court unconstitutionally lifted Attorney General Luisa Ortega’s immunity from prosecution.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) just published a report “Potential Scenarios for Venezuela’s Future”. CSIS is also examining what happens the “day after” a transition occurs, and the likely impact of the different scenarios, the worst with the country dissolving into internal armed conflict, total economic collapse, and a Syria-like humanitarian catastrophe.

Venezuela has seen its GDP drop 25 percent in two years; IMF predictions of 2000 plus inflation next year; soaring neonatal, infant and child mortality, and 20 percent of the population limited to one meal a day. Meanwhile there have been up to a million people in the streets demanding change, even as the U.N. registers Caracas as the murder capital of the world and the country ranks second in the world in its homicide rate.

The OAS needed to come together with a clear unified message demanding immediate steps toward a peaceful transition — all of which the Vatican declared the government had agreed last year and then reneged on the agreement:

▪ Release of all political prisoners;

▪ Respect the functioning of the national assembly;

▪ Replace the illegitimately named members of the supreme court — already denounced by the attorney general;

▪ Replace the illegitimately named members of the electoral council and hold delayed municipal and gubernatorial elections with international monitors now and prepare for presidential elections next year;

▪ Permit humanitarian relief through non-government channels.

The opposition also needs to unify behind an exit strategy for those in the government who support the transition.

The OAS’ failure makes a “soft landing” scenario even less likely in the short run. This scenario includes all the aforementioned steps and would represent the product of increased international and regional pressure. Serious hemisphere-wide sanctions against individuals and regime entities would need to be imposed if the government failed to agree to a transition within a finite time frame.

Every other scenario demonstrates the likelihood of more long-lasting damage to the country, its people, its neighbors, and the international community. In a second scenario, “the slow unraveling of the Bolivarian experiment” the internal situation deteriorates further as international pressure on the regime fizzles. The regime maintains control through repression.

A third scenario involves “direct military take-over” of the government. The military has reportedly expressed discontent with the growth and arming of colectivos, which are under the control of Maduro’s inner circle. Those factors, including the death of a 17-year-old protester by the national guard this Tuesday, reportedly were linked to Maduro replacing four top military commanders this week. Yet, any military take-over especially without immediate, timely and internationally monitored elections, would be condemned internationally.

The worst-case scenario of “civil armed conflict and national collapse” would see total chaos and high loss of life. Widespread epidemics and hunger would generate more looting along with increased gang violence.

Armed actions by desperate members of the opposition would likely follow with widespread clashes with colectivos and a fractured military. Refugees would overwhelm Colombian, Brazilian, and Guyanese borders and seek to reach nearby Caribbean islands.

Venezuela does not have to collapse or suffer national chaos with serious regional security implications before the current downward spiral is halted.

But putting a brake on Venezuela’s descent into dictatorship and failed state status with horrendous human consequences still requires a unified hemisphere response.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Moises Rendon is associate director of the Americas Program at CSIS and heads the Venezuela project.