The OAS and the Crises in Bolivia and Chile: Power Politics and Inconsistencies

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Protests in Chile, October 2019

Protests in Chile, October 2019/ Carlos Figueroa/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Protestas_en_Chile_20191022_07.jpg

As political crises emerge one after the other in Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS) is showing inconsistent behavior based on ideological rifts and power politics. This inconsistency – evidenced by the OAS’s role in the ongoing crises in Bolivia and Chile – undermines its mandate to protect human rights and democracy throughout the hemisphere.

In Bolivia, violence spread in the streets of various states after the opposition accused incumbent President Morales of manipulating the results of the October 20 elections. The OAS Electoral Mission reported possible irregularities, and both the Permanent Council and the Secretary General pressed the government to authorize an audit of the electoral procedures and a vote recount. Morales consented to both requests.

  • The same accusations of electoral irregularities were made two years ago in the Honduran presidential election, but a coalition of states headed by the United States swiftly recognized President Hernández – delegitimizing the OAS electoral mission and the Secretary General’s call for new elections. Those same countries have now pressed Morales, first for a recount of votes and later for new elections. When the OAS Electoral Mission confirmed the existence of electoral irregularities on November 10, the Bolivian military withdrew support for the government, prompting Morales’s resignation – an outcome radically different from that in Honduras.
  • Despite political violence and recurrent accusations by Morales of unconstitutional alterations to the constitutional order voiced by the Bolivian foreign minister at the OAS headquarters, neither the Secretary General nor OAS member states invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter. President Morales did not explicitly invoke the Charter, thinking that the crisis would follow the same course as in Honduras, or that the military remained supportive. Either way, he was wrong.

In Chile, in contrast, the police have engaged in systematic violations of human rights since an unprecedented social uprising that started on October 18. Twenty-three people have been killed, 1,950 have been injured, and 180 have suffered eye injuries from rubber bullets fired upon protesters by police – many losing their sight. The Inter- American Commission on Human Rights issued a declaration regarding the violations of human rights during the State of Emergency imposed by President Sebastián Piñera in the aftermath of the uprising. But the OAS political bodies have remained silent.

  • Neither Secretary General Almagro nor the Permanent Council have issued a single declaration of concern or condemnation regarding the situation in Chile. Almagro has refrained from convening the Permanent Council or the General Assembly, but he has loudly claimed the existence of destabilization attempts organized by Cuba and Venezuela (which he called “Bolivarian breezes”). To be sure, issuing such a statement without providing evidence or convening the political bodies of the organization jeopardizes the credibility of the OAS and breeds conspiracy theories. In a recent interview, President Piñera also subscribed to the thesis of foreign intervention in Chile’s protests without providing any evidence. The Chilean Attorney General confirmed that the government has not provided any information about the action of foreign groups.

The inconsistency displayed by the OAS in the handling of the political crises in the region suggests that the OAS applies different standards to similar situations. In fact, the organization is split into two coalitions: a larger and stronger one composed of right-wing governments that embrace or accept the foreign policy of U.S. President Donald Trump based on a revival of the Monroe Doctrine; and a smaller, weaker one composed of states with leftist and centrist governments with an anti-imperialist or a non-interventionist rhetoric.

  • Breaches of democracy and human rights violations exist on both sides of the rift, but the OAS political bodies seem to focus only on the side that happens to be weaker. This is bad news for those that would like to see in the OAS an honest broker and mediator in political crises, no matter the ideological color or the power of the concerned state. If this trend continues, it is also bad news for the protection of human rights and democracy and for multilateralism in the region.

November 11, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Nicaragua: Can Ortega Circumvent the Talks?

By Fulton Armstrong

Presidente de El Salvador participa en Cumbre SICA-Nicaragua.

President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega / https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotospresidencia_sv/30962278823 / Flickr / Creative Commons

While the Nicaraguan government continues to stonewall in negotiations with its broad-based opposition, it is taking a series of unilateral actions that seem intended to preempt the talks – and leave the opposition behind. President Daniel Ortega and his team have flatly rejected key opposition demands, including early elections to replace him (instead of waiting for general elections in 2021) and the immediate, unconditional release of hundreds of political prisoners. They have, however, issued declarations pledging several actions on their own terms.

  • Last week, the Foreign Minister said the government “is complying, and will continue to comply, with all of [its] commitments toward understanding and peace.” Calling itself the “Government of Reconciliation and National Unity,” Managua has issued a “work program” that includes the “definitive release” by June 18 of 100-plus more political prisoners and several hundred others under house arrest. It pledged to work toward a “culture of peace” and “cooperate” with the OAS on reforms of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to prepare for the 2021 elections. It promised legislation that supposedly will help victims of government violence during the April 2018 protests, although apparently with conditions that offend opposition leaders.

The opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, which left the negotiating table last week, continues to enjoy widespread support, but press reports suggest mobilization fatigue is undermining its effectiveness and unity. Sympathetic media judged a hastily called national strike last week – protesting government intransigence in the talks – as effective, but they hinted at reduced enthusiasm. The Superior Council of Private Business (COSEP), a leading opposition force, recently released its assessment that the economy is “in a free fall,” with plummeting domestic and foreign investment. COSEP analysts note that the loss of 100,000 private-sector jobs and a similar number of informal-sector jobs is taking a heavy toll on society. The Catholic Church, which remains consistently critical of the Ortega government, has had a lower political profile since Pope Francis reassigned Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez, its most outspoken critic of the government, to a Vatican job.

  • The opposition has also been stung by criticism from OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who’s led diplomatic pressure on Ortega to loosen up. In April, Almagro accused both sides in the negotiations of “lying” but listed untruths he attributed specifically to the opposition, claiming that “lying is the most antidemocratic practice.” Although the OAS last week approved a resolution, drafted by Canada with Almagro’s support, calling for Ortega to take concrete steps on human rights and election preparations, some 14 small opposition groups the day after accused the Secretary General of a “double standard” – allegedly being lenient toward Ortega but tough of Venezuelan President Maduro.

Government repression and intransigence in the negotiations are the primary causes of the crisis, but the opposition is, once again, showing a lack of focus and discipline. Ortega’s unilateral moves on political prisoners and electoral reform, after the opposition left the negotiation, suggest an effort to render the opposition and negotiation process irrelevant. By making the release of political prisoners its top priority in recent rounds of talks, opponents have given Ortega an area in which concrete and relatively cost-free steps can give the government momentum. Last week’s strike may have done more to show opponents’ weakness than strength inside Nicaragua, and Almagro’s swipe at “liars” – while possibly a reflection of his own personality and personal beliefs – cannot be helping outside. Some of the “liars” that have irritated him may indeed be mere troublemakers or government shills, but any dilution of international interest will be a victory for the government. The Trump Administration, which has pledged regime change in Nicaragua as well as Venezuela and Cuba, has been relatively quiet. Diplomats at the OAS are working hard to muster the four additional votes to reach the 24 necessary to invoke the Democratic Charter against Nicaragua, but Ortega seems to think he can end-run a negotiated settlement and undermine his opponents at home and abroad.

May 29, 2019

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.