Luis Almagro has invoked the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States, arguing that Venezuela experienced an “alteration of constitutional order,” citing a wide array of issues, spanning 133 pages. His first recommendation—and clear main goal—is to guarantee that the proposed recall referendum takes place in 2016.
This is an important test of whether the OAS is peripheral to the key political challenges that Latin America faces or an organization that can provoke discussion—and maybe even action—around Latin American democracy. Though the organization’s consensus-based means of deciding makes action extremely difficult, at this point a regional debate about what constitutes a threat to democracy would be an important step forward.
Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter allows the Secretary General to convoke the Permanent Council in the event of “an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order.” It potentially could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the OAS if a mediated solution fails, though garnering the necessary 2/3 of votes would be no small feat.
Since taking his position only one year ago, Almagro has been focusing a lot on Venezuela. The decision to invoke the Democratic Charter comes on the heels of Almagro writing a scathing letter to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, which presaged his call to invoke the democracy Charter. In the letter, Almagro wrote:
“You have an obligation to public decency to hold the recall referendum in 2016, because when politics are polarized the decision must go back to the people. That is what the Constitution says. To deny the people that vote, to deny them the possibility of deciding, would make you just another petty dictator, like so many this Hemisphere has had.”
In November 2015, Almagro also wrote a letter to Tibisay Lucena, president of the Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, denouncing the government’s refusal to allow an OAS electoral observation mission for the legislative elections.
“Because of all that I have mentioned in this letter, there are reasons to believe that the conditions in which the people will vote on December 6 will not enjoy the level of transparency and electoral justice that you, at the National Electoral Council, should guarantee.”
The OAS and the Venezuelan government have clashed for years. Back in 2007, for example, Hugo Chávez called then-OAS General Secretary José Miguel Insulza a “pendejo” for pointing out crackdowns on private media. But this is the first time the organization has moved this forcefully against the government.
The OAS has been widely criticized for responding too slowly and too weakly to political crises across the region. The Democratic Charter itself has been invoked unevenly. During the 2009 crisis that culminated in the Honduran coup, for example, the OAS did very little until it was too late. As a result, the organization played only a minimal role in conflict resolution.
Almagro has called for a meeting to be held between June 10 and 20. This will be a showdown that highlights the obstacles the OAS faces in taking action, but at the same it can define the region’s position on Venezuela’s democratic and economic decay.
On one side will be ALBA countries, which issued a statement protesting Almagro’s political tirade against Maduro (which extended into Twitter) which they deemed too political for someone who is ostensibly neutral. Those countries will argue forcefully for non-intervention, and it is likely that some other governments will choose to follow suit, even if only by maintaining silence. Non-intervention is the historical norm, and bureaucratic inertia in that regard will not be easily overcome.
On the other side, governments of the right are not on firm ground. The General Secretary’s actions come precisely as Brazil experiences a process of unscheduled presidential changes, which, back in April 2016, Almagro also criticized for being illegitimate. This negates Brazilian influence to a considerable extent. Instead, Argentine President Mauricio Macri will try to take a leading role, as he has already advocated for OAS action in Venezuela. Macri, however, is a new president pushing controversial economic policies at home and is seeing his approval ratings drop steadily.
Direct OAS action, then, is highly unlikely. But will the discussion end up pressuring the Maduro government to hold the referendum this year? The stakes are very high because if the vote occurs on or before January 10, 2017, then new elections will be held. If the referendum occurs after that date, Maduro’s vice president would assume office for the remainder of the term. At the very least, the OAS can prompt discussion that otherwise would not have taken place.
The sad decline of Venezuela should be a vehicle for a broader discussion of democracy and the role of multilateral organizations in the protection of democratic institutions and rights. For one thing, the showdown has the potential to help define what Latin America wants in its democracies and of the OAS. If Luis Almagro can facilitate that sort of open debate, then we should consider this effort a success, regardless of the specific outcome.