By Carol Morello,
Diplomats from the Western Hemisphere began meeting in Mexico on Monday, attempting to pressure Venezuela to restore democracy and ease the political chaos and repression tearing apart the oil-rich country whose citizens are on starvation diets.
Venezuela’s descent into authoritarian rule and violence is the main focus of a three-day meeting of the Organization of American States, the leading defender of democracy and human rights in the Western Hemisphere. But Venezuela is testing the OAS democratic founding principles, after almost three months of anti-government protests that have left more than 70 people dead and led to thousands being imprisoned.
So far, the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro has resisted every entreaty by the OAS to adhere to the country’s constitution. Venezuela in response decided to withdraw from the OAS, a procedure that takes two years. The OAS meeting in Cancun is a last-ditch attempt to get Maduro to reverse course before an assembly in chosen in late July to draft a new version of the constitution.
“The government’s goal now is clear — to remove the remaining authorities of the freely elected national assembly and replace it with a puppet,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, the assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere.
However, it is not clear whether the OAS has the votes to pass even a relatively toothless resolution of condemnation that has no mention of sanctions or other repercussions. The United States, Mexico and Canada, plus Peru and Costa Rica, have proposed a resolution demanding the release of political prisoners and talks leading to free elections overseen by international observers. A group of 14 Caribbean countries — many of which have received oil subsidies from Venezuela — want an even milder version, asking simply for dialogue and help in mediation.
“The problem is that the resolutions are watered down,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America expert at Columbia University. “They’re more admonitions, or exhortations, than actual concrete resolutions with teeth. They’re just more strongly worded memos than the ones in the past. Nothing’s going to happen without some threat of force — not military but sanctions.”
David Smilde, a Tulane University professor who blogs on Venezuela for the Washington Office on Latin America, said that nothing the OAS is likely to suggest will be palatable to the Maduro government. But he said a strongly worded resolution on Venezuela’s retreat from democracy could have symbolic impact and embolden Maduro’s domestic opponents.
The Trump administration’s recent decision to roll back engagement with Cuba, an Obama era policy that was popular in Latin America, makes it more difficult for the United States to take a leadership role on Venezuela. Maduro has tried to paint the OAS as a tool of U.S. imperialism.
Smilde said it helps that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided against attending, opting to stay in Washington and instead hold talks on the crisis involving Qatar. The United States will be represented by newly confirmed Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
“Tillerson would have come with a much stronger, Trump-like line, a more aggressive tone, that would have impeded any agreement,” Smilde said. “The lower the U.S. profile is, the better the solution is going to be.”