At the 47th OAS General Assembly, held in Cancún, Mexico, in June 2017, all eyes were on Venezuela. During the assembly’s first plenary session, after a speech by Delcy Rodríguez, then Venezuela’s foreign minister, countries such as Honduras and Argentina criticized the country’s defensive tone when member countries raised questions and concerns over the crisis in Venezuela. In her response, Rodríguez questioned the United States’ commitment to human rights and its need to address its own domestic issues, including police brutality and health-care policies. The United States fired back by calling her statements irrelevant distractions.
Also at the plenary session, the General Assembly approved a U.S. draft resolution that will prevent any OAS member state from paying more than 50 percent of the OAS’s regular fund. This push from the United States came as no surprise. Currently, the country contributes 59.47 percent of the OAS’s regular fund. The goal is to force other OAS member countries to increase their contributions to be more in line with their economies and to better “regionalize” the body’s funding. But while a 9.47 percent cut is an important move toward rebalancing the institution’s funding, if other countries in the region fail to step up, it may further weaken the already-weakened regional body.1
On the third day, the General Assembly elected three new members to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Antonia Urrejola Noguera (Chile), Joel Hernández García (Mexico), and Flávia Cristina Piovesan (Brazil) will replace outgoing members James Cavallaro (United States), Paulo Vannuchi (Brazil), and José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez (México). U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s last-minute decision to skip the region’s high-level diplomatic summit to focus on issues in the Middle East likely hurt U.S. candidate Doug Cassel’s chances of being elected, as well as affecting the vote on Venezuela, discussed below.
Meeting of Foreign Ministers on Venezuela
On the first day of the General Assembly, foreign ministers of OAS member states met to discuss the human rights situation in Venezuela after President Nicolás Maduro pledged to create a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. As the discussion officially began, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez announced that Venezuela would not recognize the meeting, or any resolutions that might come out of it, and then walked out.
Regardless, the meeting ended in a stalemate. Two draft resolutions were presented, the first, backed by the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Peru—and coordinated and led by Argentina—urged Venezuela to release political prisoners and not to convene a constituent assembly set to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution. The resolution received 20 votes in favor, eight abstentions, five rejections, and one absent (Venezuela), leaving it three votes away from receiving the 23 votes needed in order to pass. The second resolution, by Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states, called for Venezuela to reconsider its withdrawal from the OAS. The resolution received eight votes in favor, 11 abstentions, 14 against, and one absent (Venezuela).2
The tallies and the clear division between OAS member states on the topic of Venezuela highlight the power of small Caribbean islands in the regional body. Votes against by states like St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica—staunch allies of Venezuela—and abstentions by Haiti and others were enough to effectively kill the resolution, giving CARICOM enough power to bring down a resolution backed by some of the region’s most powerful players. It is difficult to measure the effect that Tillerson’s absence may have had on the United States’s inability to get the three votes necessary to approve the resolution.
Grupo de Lima
When Maduro pushed ahead with his constituent assembly despite broad international criticism, 17 foreign ministers and diplomatic representatives of the Americas gathered in Lima, Peru, on August 8, to discuss the situation in Venezuela and explore ways to contribute to the restoration of democracy in the country.
As a result, in a joint declaration, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru condemned the rupture of democratic order in Venezuela. The countries vowed not to recognize the National Constituent Assembly nor any act emanating from such assembly, given its illegitimate nature.
The Grupo de Lima met again in New York on September 19, during the United Nations General Assembly. The group reaffirmed its commitment to reach a peaceful resolution and expressed its support for a formal dialogue to achieve the restoration of the democratic order in Venezuela. At the end of its meeting the group announced a third meeting to be held at the end of October in Canada.4
Secretary general Almagro has appointed an independent panel to assess whether to refer Venezuela to the ICC for crimes against humanity.
Will a Case against Venezuela Be Sent to the International Criminal Court?
On July 25, OAS secretary general Luis Almagro designated Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC), as the Special Adviser on Crimes against Humanity. His designation is part of Almagro’s move to investigate crimes against humanity in Venezuela, in the hopes of bringing charges against Venezuelan authorities to the ICC. As a state party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, Venezuela is under the court’s jurisdiction.
Secretary General Almagro appointed an independent panel of international experts who will help Ocampo assess the case. The panel consists of: Manuel Ventura Robles of Costa Rica, former judge of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; Dr. Santiago Cantón of Argentina, secretary of human rights of the province of Buenos Aires and previously executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; and Professor Irwin Cotler of Canada, president of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and previously minister of justice and attorney general of Canada.5
Under the Rome Statute, the panel must initiate a preliminary investigation in order to gather evidence for its case. The panel held public hearings at the OAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., in September and October to consider whether there is enough evidence to meet the Roman Statute’s requirements.
The first round of hearings in September were held with Venezuelan civilians and members of the Venezuelan armed forces. The hearings addressed cases of unlawful arrests, torture, and rape. Captain Igor Eduardo Nieto Buitrago spoke on alleged election manipulation in Venezuela as well the government’s illicit sale of arms.6 In the second round of hearings, the panel focused on the deterioration of the judicial system and on the persecution of political parties and municipal governments. Omar Lares, mayor of Campo Elías in Mérida, Venezuela, gave his testimony on how officers of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service ransacked his home and kidnapped and tortured his son and personal assistant.7
The panel will review all evidence provided by October 30, and will announce whether there is enough merit to the case to refer it to the ICC.
What Is the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts (CEELA)?
On October 15, Venezuela held gubernatorial elections in 23 states. It was the 22nd gubernatorial election in the 18 years since the start of the Bolivarian Revolution. President Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela won 18 governorships to the opposition’s five, which led opposition leaders, observation groups, and countries across the region to question the legitimacy and transparency of the electoral process.
However, the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts (CEELA)—a body allegedly created to monitor, observe, and legitimize elections across Latin America—declared the electoral exercise as “free, respectful and successful.” But what, exactly, is this body, and why should we take its word?
Public information on CEELA and its structure is scarce. The council lacks an official website and an organizational charter. But the information available indicates that the council has monitored every electoral process in Venezuela over the past 18 years, and has affirmed the authenticity of each election and declared the results were the manifestations of the citizens’ will every time.
According to an article in Nicaragua’s El Nuevo Diario, CEELA was officially established in 2007 as a “leftist counterpart to electoral observation agencies sponsored by the Organization of American States.” In the words of José Luis Villavicencio, a former Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Council justice, the idea was to create an international body that would allow support for Latin American leftist political parties in their struggle to gain power democratically.
But according to this same article, the organization of CEELA began as early as 2004, by former magistrates of electoral institutions across the region, presumably receiving funding from the Venezuelan government, as an electoral observation body to legitimize Hugo Chávez’s mandate.
By 2010, CEELA and the OAS signed a cooperation framework agreement to “promote the development of joint initiatives on electoral matters.” Through this agreement, CEELA joined other regional electoral institutions—such as Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute; the Superior Electoral Court of Brazil; the National Electoral Chamber of Argentina; and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission—and gained institutional recognition to audit electoral processes and outcomes across the region, especially those pertaining to Venezuela.
But there is no real information on the group’s structure, the process used to elect CEELA members and experts, the operational or technical guidelines for monitoring elections, or even an explicit mission statement. It’s also not clear what CEELA has done under the cooperative agreements the group has signed.
Below is a list of council members who participated as election observers authorized by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council. These members appeared at a press conference on October 15 and deemed the election “respectful and successful” (not terms typically used by professional, technical election-observation groups). It is also worth noting that five of these members also participated in CEELA’s observing mission on the election of Venezuela’s National Assembly in July 2017.
A cofounder of CEELA, Nicanor Moscoso has served as the organization’s president since 2005. He has also participated in international observation missions for Colombia and El Salvador, in 2014, among others. Prior to leading CEELA, Moscoso was president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Ecuador, a congressman for the Guayas coastal province, and vice minister of finance and public credit in Ecuador. Moscoso is also a founding member of Ecuador’s Movimiento Centro Democrático (Democratic Center Movement).
Guillermo Reyes, elections expert and CEELA cofounder, was the former president of Colombia’s National Electoral Council. Reyes has been observing elections in Venezuela since 2003. Between 2006 and 2008 he was deputy minister of justice and an auxiliary justice at Colombia’s Constitutional Court.
In 2015, when aspiring to lead Colombia’s Civilian National Registry, Reyes was involved in a plagiarism scandal regarding his doctoral thesis at Madrid’s Complutense University (UCM) law school. The thesis allegedly contained more than 20 plagiarized texts.
Walter René Araujo
Walter Araujo, also a CEELA founding member, served for more than 20 years in El Salvador’s political system as chief justice for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, president of the Legislative Assembly, congressman, and head of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. In 2015 he ran for mayor of San Salvador with the Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party.
Araujo was a member of the Unity for the Execution of the Peace Accords (UDAPAZ) in 1992, executive secretary of the Government Dialogue Committee of El Salvador from 1990 to 1992, and chief operations officer in the data-processing department of the Central Elections Council from 1986 to 1988. He was also an adviser to former Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani.
Eugenio Chicas Martínez
CEELA member Eugenio Chicas is the current communications secretary at the Office of the President of El Salvador. Besides serving as an international elections consultant, Chicas is also a member of the board of directors of the Center for Exchange and Solidarity; a member of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party at the national directorate level; a columnist for El Diario de Hoy; and a congressman elected to the Central American Parliament for the 2016–2021 term. Chicas was chief justice of El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal from 2009 to 2014.
Alfredo Arévalo is the former president of Ecuador’s Constitutional Electoral Tribunal. After Venezuela’s October 15 polling, Arévalo declared the election to have been one of the best electoral processes ever held, claiming it was audited many times by all parties and political actors. Arévalo is the current dean of the Industrial Engineering College at the University of Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Among other observing participants of the October 15 poll were Victor Soto, former president of Peru’s National Election Jury; Augusto Aguilar, CEELA director for Central America; Gastón Soto, former member of Peru’s National Election Jury and former adviser and president of the National Judicial Council of Peru; and Silvia Cartagena, former justice at El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
In declining to provide quick counts or information on voting sites monitored and whether they were able to observe the vote tabulation process on-site or in the national electoral council, CEELA makes it hard to believe they were able to reach such a confident conclusion.