international analysis and commentary

Venezuela’s challenge to Latin America’s defense of democracy

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Latin America wants to defend democracy and has committed itself in multiple international fora to this goal. In the 21st century, countries have acted in concert multiple times to isolate governments that came to power through irregular or highly questionable means (for example, Venezuela in 2002 and Honduras in 2009) or to effectively mediate government-opposition conflicts (for example, Bolivia in 2007-2008). But today Latin America is divided on how to respond to the political, economic and humanitarian crisis engulfing Venezuela.

The Lima Group of 14 countries (including Canada, Guyana and Saint Lucia as non-Latin American members) is pressuring the government of Nicolás Maduro for credible commitments to free elections and reforms, but a dozen or so members of the Organization of American States (OAS) call for a hands-off approach. Even within the Lima Group there is division regarding how much to pressure Maduro: Peru has told Maduro he is not invited to the Summit of the Americas which will be held in Lima this year, while Chile has publicly stated that all states are invited to the inauguration of new President Sebastián Piñera.

The reasons for this disunity are not simply ideological disagreements, dependence on Venezuelan oil or kowtowing to Washington. Rather, they are rooted in the region’s history of political instability, frustrated social change, and experience with the heavy and clumsy hand of the United States – all of which have led to the region prizing sovereignty and feeling great reluctance to countenance interference by other nations in domestic affairs.

The OAS leadership, both the current Secretary General, Luis Almagro, and the former Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, have sought to have the organization live up to its responsibilities under the Inter-American Democratic Charter adopted in 2001, and to critique the intransigence of the Maduro government. However, weakened by struggles between members on the right and left of the political spectrum, the OAS has not been effective in delivering a clear and consistent pro-democratic message.

Scene from a demonstration in Caracas

There is clear agreement though among Latin American governments that if the military participates in an overthrow, even if asked by governing institutions to do so (for example Honduras), that is defined as a coup against democracy. But if riots in the street have the express intention to force a president to resign and thus impose the vocal minority’s will over the results of elections, Latin American consensus breaks with governments that favor the opposition calling for mediation and those sympathetic to the government supporting the electoral calendar. This pattern suggests that Latin America’s defense of democracy is not about law and institutions, but individuals and politics.

The response of the US government to the Maduro government’s increasing authoritarianism complicates the Latin American response. Although he was responding more to his own domestic pressure, former President Barack Obama’s March 2015 designation of Venezuela as a threat to US national security alienated most of Latin America with its harkening back to Cold War unilateralism. The recent thinly-veiled calls by high US officials (President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Senator Marco Rubio, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere) for a military coup to oust President Maduro raises fears of a return to the history of Latin American militaries as the arbiters of politics. The fact that some members of the political opposition also support the call for Venezuela’s military to intervene is also troubling, as significant minority opinions in Latin America’s past supported military coups that were followed by severe repression and suspended democracy for years.

In Paraguay and Brazil, legal impeachments of leftist presidents were controversial because of the lack of time accorded for defense and the perception that Congress was more corrupt than the President, respectively. These questionable impeachments raise the specter of the left and right slinging mud at each other. It has been noted that Maduro’s popularity in Venezuela is far greater than President Michel Temer’s in Brazil. Among the mediators selected by the opposition to balance Venezuelan government mediators is Mexico – the country with the highest murder rate for journalists, where the government is suspected by international NGOs of being involved in much of the violence against citizens, including students, and wallowing in corruption. Colombia is one of the leading voices in favor of sanctioning Venezuela’s government (and creating a rescue package). But Colombia’s bona fides are compromised by the fraying of the peace agreement because the government cannot provide security for FARC candidates in elections or even significantly increase the risk for those who would attack them.

The issue is about institutions and democracy, not popularity, government effectiveness, corruption or even human rights per se. Brazilian elections will be free and fair (Lula was found guilty by an independent judiciary appointed by the Workers’ Party governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, not Temer), while Venezuela’s elections have little credibility as opposition leaders are arrested, parties are declared illegal, and institutions in which the opposition wins are closed and replaced (legislature, state governorships). The scale of undermining democratic institutions is significantly greater in Venezuela than elsewhere in the region. The chavista and former state prosecutor Luisa Ortega (who has fled Venezuela) and President Lenin Moreno in Ecuador have criticized political repression in Venezuela, and the credentials of Insulza and Almagro of the OAS on the left indicate that this division goes beyond the left-right divide.

While there is discussion about negotiations and there have been numerous mediated meetings, the government is not required to stop altering the political institutional landscape. Thus it has made dramatic changes to governing institutions and laws in ways that significantly undercut the opposition’s ability to compete – the opposition-controlled national legislature was closed, elections for governors and mayors were postponed for long periods, a Constituent Assembly was elected under rules that guaranteed a large majority favoring the government (and fraud was denounced by the international firm providing the electoral machinery) and new laws were passed that made important opposition groups illegal and facilitated the arrest of opposition leaders.

Latin America wants dialogue, but offers little in the way of effective sanctions to promote that dialogue because no country wants to‘intervene’ and directly interfere with domestic affairs. Maduro uses this respect for Venezuelan sovereignty as a means of legitimizing his actions, even as those actions progressively eliminate the very elements that Latin America has seen in the past as necessary for democracy: separation of power, freedom of expression, and free and fair elections.