On June 30th, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will hold illegal elections for a proposed constitutional assembly. Though the current constitution, which is less than 20 years old, was inspired by Maduro’s mentor, former President Hugo Chávez, to consolidate the Chavistas’ control over the state, the hapless inheritor of Chavismo is looking for a distraction from daily popular protests and an economy and society spinning wildly out of control.
That’s not to say that the original constitution failed in its objectives. Today, the judicial system is firmly under the control of the administration, the military, national guard and police are politicized, and the government has packed the electoral council, adding up to a solidly pro-Maduro/Chavez state.
But as the government has wiped out checks and balances, closing off political space and distributing once sky-high oil revenue to pet projects and political allies, the economy has tanked. The inflation rate is expected to hit 1,700% this year. The GDP has contracted by more than 20% in the last three years. More than 100 citizens have been killed over the 100 days of popular protests.
So of course, why not write a new constitution? In the days leading up to the “vote” for the constitutional assembly, what the new constitution will contain is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that the assembly will be dominated by pro-government members.
The opposition has called for voters to reject the voting process. And according to public opinion polls, more than 70% of Venezuelan voters oppose the referendum on a constitutional assembly. Nevertheless, barring an unexpected turn of events, on Sunday some number of the more than 18 million registered Venezuelan voters will select a constituent assembly of 545 members in districts drawn to favor the government. The voters will also elect members (181 of the 545 total seats) from a series of arbitrary categories designated by the Maduro government—workers, indigenous Venezuelans, and Afro-descendents—all also designed to favor the ruling party.
This is the moment when any last vestiges of Venezuelan democracy will die. Once elected, the constituent assembly will likely shutter the congress and assume legislative power until the new constitution, whose contents remain a mystery, is finished. No one knows when that will be, though it may extend well beyond the country’s scheduled presidential elections in 2018, perpetuating the deeply unpopular Maduro’s grip on power.
But precisely as Republicans and the Trump administration are threatening economic sanctions should Maduro go ahead with the assembly, the United States is losing its own leadership on democracy and human rights, not just in the beleaguered Andean petro-state but across the region. The Trump administration’s waning regional influence has also affected its attempts to rally the region to join the United States when it acts on Venezuela.
The decline of U.S. leadership was on full display at the June 2017 General Assembly meeting of the regional multilateral body, the Organization of American States (OAS), in Cancun, Mexico. At the regional meeting of all member states’s foreign ministers/secretaries (minus one—guess who?) the U.S. failed to get its candidate, the well-respected human rights jurist Douglass Cassel, elected to the body’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Cassel was eminently qualified, and his defeat marked the first time in more than 10 years that the United States failed to get a U.S. jurist on the preeminent human rights body in the hemisphere. The meeting in Cancun was only the latest sign of a U.S. retreat from leadership on human rights.
At the 161st hearings of the IACHR in March 2017, the U.S. refused to send a representative for the three U.S. cases under discussion. Those included “Case 12.545–Isamu Carlos Shibayama and others” (a case about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II), “Impact of Executive Orders” (about President Trump’s travel ban) and “Policies that Prevent Access to Asylum in the United States.” The reason given was that the cases were still under adjudication in U.S. courts, but—as we discuss in our recent report “Solidarity with the People?”—by opting out, the U.S. joined the notoriously human-rights-abusing, anti-democratic governments of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and the Castro regime in Cuba, which repeatedly refuse to send representatives to hearings on human rights cases in their countries.
Even Venezuela sent government representatives to attend its seven hearings, which concerned topics such as freedom of expression and information, access to justice, and political persecution. (Not that Venezuela’s presence really mattered much; on April 26 the government officially declared its intention to pull entirely out of the OAS. And a year and a half earlier, the Venezuelan government declared that the country no longer considered itself obligated under the inter-American human rights system, in reaction to a case that challenged its shuttering of an independent television station.)
When it comes to human rights accountability in the region, the U.S. is now closer to Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua than to Costa Rica, Chile or Colombia.
Failure to show
As a result, it was already going to be a difficult sell to get the necessary absolute majority of the 34 members countries to support a candidate’s election to a body the U.S. refused to recognize. Nevertheless, despite the Trump administration’s seeming indifference to the OAS human rights system, according to U.S. diplomats the U.S. had the votes lined up to confirm Cassel in the days leading up to the General Assembly. Then came the last minute decision by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to attend the General Assembly.
The real cost of the Trump administration’s repeated snub of the OAS, however, came over the region’s looming crisis: Venezuela. On June 19 the General Assembly voted on a resolution to condemn Maduro’s planned constituent assembly and express concern over the ongoing deterioration of human rights in the country. Despite having a number of sponsors, including Mexico and Argentina, the resolution, pushed by the U.S., gained only 20 of the 34 member countries’ votes in favor, far short of the two thirds majority necessary to trigger action. Among those who voted against it or abstained were the Dominican Republic and more liberal Caribbean countries, like St. Christopher and Nevis, some of which Tillerson’s presence and glad-handing (important in the Western Hemisphere) may have helped sway.
The absence of the secretary of state was compounded by the gaping vacuum in the upper echelons of the State Department. Much has been said and written about the 357 positions that have yet to be filled across the government, including the 89 vacancies in the State Department, which include Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs and ambassadorships to Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela in the Western Hemisphere alone. The State Department lacked a high level ground game in Cancun. That reflects the White House’s priorities.
The Trump administration’s America First strategy contains a number of paradoxes in U.S. foreign policy: speaking out in favor of human rights in Venezuela and Cuba, but then refusing to participate in the bodies intended to protect human rights in the hemisphere; downplaying similar concerns in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Poland, Russia; attacking one of the U.S.’s closest allies in the region, Mexico. The list goes on. For many in Latin America and the Caribbean, the message appears to be that democracy and human rights matter for the countries in the U.S.’s backyard and weaker countries around the world, but not for the U.S.’s geopolitical allies—except, for some reason, Mexico. Even then, the Trump administration’s refusal to effectively engage in multilateral processes to reinforce human rights and promote its own agenda in Venezuela demonstrates, at best, a superficial—and at worst, a cynical—commitment to human rights norms, even when it claims to support them.
The Maduro regime has likely recognized this. And other countries—democratic allies and aspiring autocrats alike—are also watching. At best they will fail to support the U.S. in key votes; at worst they too will join in undermining multilateralism, regional institutions and human rights norms.
For now, as Venezuela hurtles toward an unprecedented crisis for the country and the region, the U.S. stands alone, but not as a leader. It stands alone as a country that has failed to engage multilateral norms and institutions that could have at the very least given a perception of regional solidarity against a failing state. To be sure, a number of countries in the region have too-long stood on the sidelines, refusing to engage to head off a train wreck that was foreseen years ago. But as the votes at June’s OAS General Assembly showed, when the U.S. ignores, or even shuns, multilateral, collective expressions of the norms it claims to support, it becomes a toxic partner. Even beyond the U.S.’s isolation on Venezuela, there is a larger risk: that not only in Venezuela but across the region—whether in Nicaragua, Mexico, or elsewhere in Central America—the Trump administration has ceded its moral authority to lead on liberal issues in a region where too many countries are happy to remain mute on the sidelines.