Every week, I go to my acupuncture therapy in my hometown. Every time, a woman offers to keep an eye on my car, which I park on the street. The woman, Mrs. X (as I will nickname her) has been an excellent barometer to measure the opinions and attitudes of low-income Venezuelans. Four years ago, when I started my therapy, Mrs. X was passionately Chavista. Her mourning of Hugo Chavez’s death, however, has long since passed. She has lost about 22 pounds “thanks to the Maduro diet,” she told me at the time. This June, she dove into the deep end of international politics.
“We need three votes,” Mrs. X told me on Tuesday, June 20. At first, I did not understand what she was talking about. Immediately, she gave me a very specific summary about what had happened in Cancún (Mexico) in the Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Organization of American States (OAS). “Doctor,” Mrs. X told me (she thinks I am a physician), “it is only a matter of time.”
Mrs. X, with a political outlook common among low-income Venezuelans, has simply concluded that one must be patient with the OAS. As the OAS continues to fail to act, however, an increasing number of Venezuelans are dying in the streets. On June 19, while the hemispheric organization debated in Cancún, Bolivarian National Guard officers with firearms killed a teenager, Fabián Urbina, only 17 years old, and wounded an additional 6 young protestors.
The June 19 session ratified once again a mise-en-scène that has existed for a year: a) there is no consensus about the role the OAS must play on Venezuela’s crisis and its authoritarian and repressive context; b) the Caribbean bloc has moved back and forth in its positions, but at the end, most of the nations are anchored—at least publicly—in the hoary principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs.
There is no consensus within the OAS on Venezuela’s crisis. The division between Spanish-speaking countries (and Brazil) and English and French-speaking Caribbean nations never been more clear. And at the backdrop, the United Sates, once a leading player in the OAS, simply does not seem to be able to promote shared, common-sense solutions in the region.
Meanwhile, in Caracas, President Nicolas Maduro has rewarded the OAS Ambassador, Samuel Moncada, for his over-the-top bluster. This month, he was appointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Venezuela. Moncada, who was opposed to Venezuela’s proposed withdrawal from the organization, was openly aggressive e during his short time in the OAS. The Venezuelan regime has celebrated his success in wreaking havoc that contributed to the breakdown of consensus in the organization.
In informal corridor talks, Venezuela, endorsed by Ecuador and Bolivia, has proposed a review of Luis Almagro’s behavior as OAS Secretary General. This strategy, even if it does not bear fruit, helps to distract the focus of the organization and is a convenient distraction from the dictatorial nature of Maduro’s regime.
For several months Almagro has spoken openly about a dictatorship in Venezuela. He backed up his concerns with two reports submitted to the Permanent Council and at last year’s session, in which he called to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
When you look at the final conclusions of the OAS sessions, though, there has been no explicit statement pointing out the breakdown of constitutional order in Venezuela. The reason? Because the countries couldn’t agree. Despite the undeniable democratic meltdown in Venezuela, the country is still “in observation.” At the end of May, foreign affairs ministers from around the meeting met; the tone escalated during discussion on what the OAS should do must to resolve the Venezuelan crisis. Another ministerial meeting was held in Cancún, but there are no signals of a course of action, at least in the short term.
While the Venezuelan withdrawal from the OAS won’t come into effect for two years, the decision has had an immediate political impact. Before the announcement, some Caribbean countries had expressed the need of the OAS to play a mediating role in Venezuela’s crisis. After Caracas’ announcement, Anglo-Saxon and Francophone Caribbean countries aligned within the OAS, again raising the flag of non-intervention in domestic affairs.
The decision of the Caribbean nations to form a bloc and join with key allies for Venezuela—such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua—makes it almost impossible for the OAS to make any relevant decision on Venezuela, at least for the moment.
According to the OAS Charter, the votes of two-thirds of the members (23 countries) are needed to make a firm decision. Until now, request of sessions to debate on Venezuela’s case, which need at least half of members (18 votes), have reached, included sessions with Foreign Affairs Ministers.
The lack of guidelines in the United States’ policies to Latin America has had a direct impact on the OAS. In addition, no interlocutors for Latin America have been appointed by the Trump administration.
In the Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs held on May 31 in Washington, the waning of U.S. influence was clear. The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was in the city but chose to concentrate on the Prime Minister of Vietnam’s visit instead of attending the discussion on the Venezuelan crisis. The U.S. spokesman who attended the session in Tillerson’s place was Thomas Shannon, Counsellor of the Department.
Donald Trump had said that Secretary Tillerson would go to Cancún and, according to the new presidential language, the White House said the head of the Department of State was responsible for addressing the Venezuelan crisis. However, Tillerson’s decision not to attend has weakened Washington’s diplomatic authority in the region. What the last OAS meeting on Venezuela made clear is that there are two blocs in the regional body, determined by ideology and geography inside the organization.
With the exception of Ecuador’s abstention (a shift with the new administration of Lenin Moreno), the votes from Cancún show that so far there are no signs of realignment. As Mrs. X said, it seems our only option is to be patient. It remains to be seen whether the Venezuelan crisis will escalate to a degree that the OAS is no longer able to respond. In my opinion, there is still time to act.
One possible course of action (if you think about the Group of Friends or Contadora Group, the formula adopted for Central America in the 80’s) is what Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has proposed: a coalition of “a group of Venezuela’s friends”—composed of three countries with pro-Maduro governments—and three additional countries accepted by the Venezuelan opposition. The goal of such a group would be promoting and influencing a political dialogue and a negotiating mechanism from within the OAS.
The Vatican, which participated in the unsuccessful political dialogue in Venezuela at the end of last year, has backed Kucynski’s proposal. It looks great on paper, but three votes are still needed. Meanwhile, Mrs. X waits patiently, keeping an eye on cars in a Venezuelan street and—I hope—the needles she’s plunging into my skin.