The Economist: The Venezuela test
Why Latin American governments refuse to stick up for democracy
AS THE police in Venezuela shoot hungry looters, the Organisation of American States (OAS) dithers. The world's oldest regional body, based in a grand mansion a few blocks from the White House, is supposed to uphold democracy in the Americas. Back in 2001 it adopted a high-flown Democratic Charter, committing the 34 active member states to representative government, and declaring that any country where the democratic order is interrrupted or altered could be suspended from the body.
The aim was to prevent not only a repetition of Latin America's military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s but also the 1992 “self-coup” by Alberto Fujimori, a Peruvian president, who shut down his country's Congress. This week the OAS's General Assembly convened in the Dominican Republic facing a “self-coup” in Venezuela. But for various reasons, the assembled foreign ministers' resolve to apply their charter is about as stiff as a piña colada without the rum.
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela's leftist president, has neutered the opposition-controlled National Assembly and locked up scores of political prisoners. He flatly refuses to allow a recall referendum against him this year, as the opposition demands and the constitution allows. (His electoral commission has disallowed more than 1m voters' signatures supporting one.) Food riots and looting are now almost daily events in Venezuela, thanks to the government's mismanagement.
All this prompted Luis Almagro, the OAS's secretary-general, to invoke the Democratic Charter last month as he called for a meeting that could lead to Venezuela's suspension. A former foreign minister of Uruguay and himself a left-winger, Mr Almagro has become a vocal critic of Mr Maduro. But has he done his homework?
At the instigation of Argentina, the initial response of the OAS's permanent council was a declaration backing talks between the government and the opposition organised by a clutch of ex-presidents. Though an excellent idea in principle, it came as no surprise to observers of Mr Maduro, whose aim is to buy time, that this is going nowhere. That, too, may be the fate of bilateral talks agreed in Santo Domingo by John Kerry, the United States' secretary of state, and his Venezuelan counterpart.
Argentina has back-pedalled. Last year the country's new liberal president, Mauricio Macri, called for Venezuela's suspension from Mercosur, a trade group, for violating its democracy clause. But Susana Malcorra, Mr Macri's foreign minister, is a candidate for secretary-general of the UN. Venezuela is currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council and, her critics say, she doesn't want to offend it.
Yet the reasons for caution, from Argentina and others, go deeper. Latin Americans are allergic to intervening in each other's internal affairs, partly because the United States did so in the past. They have invoked the democracy clauses in their various regional agreements only when left-wing presidents of small countries (Honduras and Paraguay) were pushed out. The region's culture of presidentialism makes them reluctant to punish an elected leader, however dictatorial.
Second, Latin American diplomats worry that suspending Venezuela from the OAS would not restore democracy. “They think that power in Caracas still lies with the regime,” says Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations in São Paulo. Polls show that Mr Maduro has the support of only a quarter of Venezuelans, but he has the backing of the army. Political changes in the region mean that Mr Maduro has fewer allies. But he knows that Barack Obama is on the way out in the United States and that Brazil's interim government is weak.
Third, much of South America is ambivalent about the OAS itself, seeing it as a cold-war anachronism. The organisation now shares the diplomatic stage with other regional bodies that exclude the United States and Canada. Even so, suspension from the OAS would matter to Mr Maduro. Himself a former foreign minister, he has been lobbying hard to prevent this outcome, says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington, DC.
The OAS will decide on June 23rd whether to sustain Mr Almagro's initiative. He looks likely to fall short of the 18 votes he needs. Even Mr Kerry said he would not support Venezuela's suspension. The hope is that Mr Almagro's proposal will force Mr Maduro into a real dialogue, one based on respecting his own constitution. If not, the OAS will merely have demonstrated that Latin America's commitment to collective action to uphold democracy is a dead letter.
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