In the past few weeks something remarkable has happened. Latin American leaders have started to stand up about the December 6 legislative elections in Venezuela. While it’s a welcome change, it is still an individual effort. There is still no institutional response, a reflection of the weakened institutional state of the region’s bodies and silence of its governments.
In late October, the Brazilian electoral tribunal refused to include a representative on the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) election “accompanying” mission after the body rejected Brazil’s nomination of noted jurist Nelson Jobim to participate in the delegation. Brazil’s electoral tribunal also noted that “With less than two months from the elections, an adequate observation is unfeasible.” Well said.
Brazil’s refusal went beyond the individual case of Venezuela to the heart of the problem with UNASUR’s election observation fantasies. As the above-term implies, UNASUR’s election mission by its own design is only to accompany the national electoral commission in the process—a ridiculous idea. The whole point of an election observation is to have the international community on the ground during the electoral process (before and on election day) to protect citizens’ right to be heard and to vote, not go on a platonic date with the state electoral authorities. Brazil’s response was laudable. But you still have to wonder why the other countries in UNASUR, many of whom have benefitted from real, meaningful election observation in the past, would have signed on to such an insult to citizens’ rights.
Then in early November, the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro issued a powerful 18 page letter detailing his concerns about the electoral process in Venezuela. Included in his concerns were the incarceration of political opposition leaders, the prohibition on other opposition leaders to participate in the elections, and the freeness and fairness of the electoral playing field. Of course it generated the obvious response from the Venezuelan government: indignation and victimhood. (Toilet paper and cornmeal may be in short supply in the petroleum producing state, but there’s a surplus of indignation and victimhood.)
Unfortunately, what it didn’t generate was a vote by the OAS Permanent Council under the Democratic Charter on whether Venezuela’s actions violate the OAS’s own Democratic Charter. That’s not Secretary General Almagro’s fault, though. He only sits atop the institution, which is made up of and effectively governed by its member states. By issuing the letter in his first year as Secretary General, Almagro has already done more to support Venezuelan human rights than his predecessor, Jose Miguel Insulza, did in his 10 years on the job. And you’d be a fool to think that the collective 34-member body of the Permanent Council would be willing to raise its voice to vote on Almagro’s concerns, not with the Caribbean bloc firmly in Venezuela’s pocket thanks to the oil-giveaway program Petro-Caribe and other countries like Ecuador and Nicaragua that also want to shake off international scrutiny of their autocratic, anti-democratic designs. In effect, sadly what it says is that the OAS, for now and maybe forever, has lost the basic consensus to defend citizen and popular rights as a collective body, no matter how principled its secretary general may be.
Then, last week, a letter was released with 157 signatures of legislators from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, and the United States expressing their concern over the electoral conditions in the lead up to the December 6th balloting. Led by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin—the Democrat from Maryland—the regional legislative statement demonstrated a multi-partisan preoccupation about political prisoners in Venezuela and electoral freedoms in Venezuela. The letter wisely includes a call for more credible bodies than UNASUR—the European Union or the OAS—to observe the elections.
And last, in his first press conference as the president-elect of Argentina, Mauricio Macri stated that he would seek Venezuela’s expulsion from the Southern Cone common market, Mercosur, for violating the body’s democratic charter. The declaration is a sharp change from the Kirchnerista government he will replace. But Marci will take the oath of office four days after the Venezuelan elections and will still need to persuade the other members of Mercosur—Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, governments that have been far from leaders in standing up for human rights in Venezuela—to take action against their neighbor to the north.
Because all these declarations and expressions of concern occurred around the same time, it gives the impression that scrutiny of the Venezuelan elections and a willingness to defend citizens’ rights in the beleaguered country is tightening, that the gig is up for President Nicolas Maduro and his corrupt circle. But the truth is that all of these expressions are atomized, personal, without the weight of any governmental or multilateral body that can threaten individual or collective sanctions should the Venezuelan government’s refusal to abide by basic democratic norms.
And here the threat is real. While public opinion polls have revealed that a vast majority of voters disapprove of the Maduro government and a majority of Venezuelan voters will cast their ballots for the opposition the outcomes are far from certain. For one, the system has been gamed against the opposition. Only 39 percent of the seats in opposition leaning districts have been allocated to what is 52 percent of the national population. And then there are the non-transparent conditions under which Venezuelan voters will cast their ballots—conditions UNASUR’s pathetic excuse for election monitoring is ill-(though intentionally) equipped to detect.
There’s also the matter of what happens next if the opposition wins. President Maduro and the government have issued statements that the government will defend the revolution. Their statements and stridency has raised the specter that whatever the results of the election, the government will continue to pursue its revolutionary course. One scenario is that before stepping down to inaugurate a new national assembly the pro-government majority in the current congress will vote to cede legislative powers to the executive, neutering the legislative body before the opposition takes control.
What will the regional community do then? For all their welcome statements and signatures, the individuals who have expressed concern do not add up to a collective response. What can and will they do? To misquote 1970s disco pop star Bonnie Taylor we need an institutional leader…I’m holding on ’til the end of the year.