Crisis in Venezuela: Where’s the OAS?
March 20, 2014
For the past six weeks, Venezuela has been wracked by country-wide protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro, leaving the country reeling in political and social unrest.
The protests, which began in February in response to high crime and impunity, have grown to encompass a wider range of grievances, including Venezuela’s economic crisis, chronic scarcity, skyrocketing inflation, and government corruption, among others. And the government’s response to those protests has been forceful. According to official counts, at least 30 have died in the protests so far, with over 300 injured and upwards of 1,500 detained by the government.
But as the crisis in Venezuela has developed, it has frequently been overshadowed by the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine—and, more recently, the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Even within the Western Hemisphere, the crisis has gained only modest media traction, as regional leaders have offered cautious responses to the developments, expressing mostly concern over the violence and a desire to see an honest dialogue among the parties involved.
And for those who have taken a stronger stance against the Maduro administration’s response, tensions have only risen. Soon after the violence began, on February 17, Venezuela ordered that three U.S. diplomats be expelled from the country, and on March 5, Venezuela severed its diplomatic ties with Panama after the small Central American nation attempted to call a special meeting at the Organization of American States (OAS) regarding the crisis.
While the OAS did eventually meet to discuss the crisis, the resulting product of the two-day affair—a joint agreement approved by a vote of 29 to 3 (the United States, Panama, and Canada were the dissenters)—expressed concern over the violence and the organization’s support and encouragement for the government’s efforts.
Secretary of State John Kerry, along with a bipartisan group in the U.S Congress, recently proposed a range of targeted sanctions as they have communicated their disappointment with the developments in Venezuela. But Secretary Kerry took a further step in suggesting the application of the OAS’s Inter-American Democratic Charter in this crisis. While a move like this could be largely symbolic, it raises important questions about the Charter and the inter-American system as they stand today, their relevance and significance in the region, and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.
Q1: What is the Inter-American Democratic Charter?
A1: The Inter-American Democratic Charter, approved by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States on September 11, 2001, is widely recognized as an affirmation of the virtues of democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere. In broadest terms, the Charter establishes the significance of democracy and the duty of the region’s governments to defend and support it through a series of provisions that collectively outline its necessity in promoting human rights, economic equality, and development in the region.
Perhaps more importantly, though, particularly in the current context, the Charter also sets out the importance of respecting and strengthening democratic institutions throughout the Western Hemisphere—and sets up a process of checks against threats to any member states’ democratic integrity.
Still, the Charter does avoid specificity in defining those threats beyond the “unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order” or the “unconstitutional alteration…that seriously impairs the democratic order” noted in Article 19. Even with that ambiguity, however, it has been interpreted to include anything from the outright overthrow of an elected government to the gradual erosion of democratic elements in a particular political context.
Q2: When has the Charter been invoked, and how?
A2: Since its inception in 2001, the Inter-American Democratic Charter has been invoked twice, but only fully applied once. The first invocation was in Venezuela in 2002, directly following the coup d’état that temporarily removed the late-president Hugo Chávez from power. The second took place seven years later in Honduras, following the successful coup of then-president Manuel Zelaya.
In April 2002, Hugo Chávez was temporarily overthrown by some sectors of the military and business interests in the country. The Rio Group, which was meeting at the time, released a joint statement denouncing the coup and invoking the Democratic Charter. Enforcement of that invocation proved unnecessary, the interim government was dissolved, and Chávez was reinstated as president before the OAS could convene.
The Charter’s use in Honduras, however, was a bit more definitive. After a controversial violation of the constitution, Manuel Zelaya was removed from office by Honduras’s Congress and transported outside of the country by Honduran military officials. Countries all over the region condemned the action and refused to recognize the de facto government. Within a week, the majority of the international community had condemned the action as a coup d’état, and the OAS had convened a special meeting of the General Assembly. At that meeting, the Assembly voted unanimously to invoke the Democratic Charter and suspend Honduras’s membership in the organization.
Q3: How could the Charter apply in Venezuela?
A3: As the crisis in Venezuela continues unabated and as tensions continue to rise between Maduro’s administration and other regional actors, the OAS’s meek resolution regarding Venezuela and Kerry’s willingness to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter together highlight a serious dilemma between the integrity of the inter-American system and the autonomy and sovereignty of an independent state with an arguably democratically elected government.
It is this dilemma that underlies the OAS’s apparent hesitation to invoke the Charter. There is, to be sure, increasingly troubling violence between Venezuelan protestors and authorities. With dozens dead, hundreds injured, and nearly 2,000 detained, the situation is dire. But if the OAS follows the precedent set during the constitutional crisis in Honduras, it will likely retain its resolute respect for sovereignty and nonintervention in Venezuela—at least until there is a sign of an “unconstitutional interruption” of democracy.
Nevertheless, government authorities repeatedly respond disproportionately to protesters, using tear gas, rubber bullets, firearms, and in some parts of the country military personnel, tanks, and fighter jets to subdue demonstrations. Reports continue to emerge of vicious torture and human rights abuses of detained demonstrators.
Press rights have been largely infringed upon, as NTN24, CNN en Español, and even Twitter faced different forms of censure, and individuals have been victims of attacks, repression, and destruction of property by government authorities.
Prominent opposition leaders Leopoldo López, national coordinator of Voluntad Popular, Vicencio Scarano Spisso, mayor of the municipality of San Diego, and Daniel Ceballos, mayor of San Cristóbal, are being held by government forces as political prisoners. And as that count rises—and given the recent warrant against María Corina Machado—the political opposition movement is repeatedly and increasingly affronted with active targeting and repression from the Maduro administration and the very real possibility of political imprisonment.
There is a significant and increasing consensus that these developments in Venezuela clearly constitute an “alteration” of democracy, or the impairment of the democratic order, especially should the trends in the country persist.
Conclusions: John Kerry’s willingness to consider invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter may well be an honest litmus test of the Obama administration’s concern over the crisis in Venezuela—but it is, at this point, little more than that. For the U.S. government to bring the case before the OAS, it would have to expend significant political capital—capital it is likely to hold on to, at least for now, as it deals with crises halfway around the world.
But if the OAS’s joint statement from March 7 is any indication of the body’s current inclinations, any attempt to apply the Charter would likely fall flat before reaching the General Assembly. Is the Inter-American Democratic Charter, then, an effective and relevant representation of the values of democracy?
Just as a state requires a wide range of important characteristics to qualify as a democracy, the interruption of democracy can also manifest itself in different ways—as the interruption or alteration of any number of those characteristics. Venezuela is currently undergoing—and will continue to undergo—a serious and debilitating erosion of its democratic integrity. The region, and by extension the OAS, can either attempt to douse the embers of political instability now or watch as they spread into a fire that engulfs Venezuela—and that could, as a result, spread to other parts of the hemisphere.
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ian Kowalski, intern scholar, and Jillian Rafferty, program coordinator, both with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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