Venezuela- OAS: New Chapter in a Long Story

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Special Meeting of the Permanent Council, April 3, 2017

On April 3, a special meeting of the OAS Permanent Council voted to condemn Venezuela’s action that allows the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) to take over the functions of the National Assembly. / Juan Manuel Herrera/ OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro seems determined to validate critics’ claims that the separation of powers in Venezuela has been breached, thereby strengthening diplomatic efforts to force him to reverse course.  After the OAS Permanent Council met for two days to discuss Secretary General Almagro’s call for Caracas’ suspension, Venezuelan courts on March 29 authorized the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) to take over the functions of the National Assembly, and to limit the immunity of the members of the parliament.  The action reinvigorated an exhausted domestic opposition and further infuriated international observers.  Two days later, the TSJ overturned the two rulings after Maduro, casting himself as a mediator between competing constitutional powers, requested it.  These erratic actions signaled the worsening erosion of the rule of law as well as the divisions in the government and the Bolivarian movement.

  • The reversal did not take the edge off OAS General Secretary Almagro’s and others’ condemnation of the power grab as an autogolpe or “self-coup.” The Inter-American Democratic Charter was designed in 2001 precisely to provide the OAS with instruments to deter self-coups in the aftermath of those carried out by Alberto Fujimori (Peru) and Jorge Serrano (Guatemala) in the 1990s.

The TSJ decisions and Venezuela’s defiance didn’t put Almagro’s suspension efforts over the top, but the Permanent Council is now much more actively involved in the crisis.  Venezuela has isolated itself within the Permanent Council.  Speaking at the Council, its delegation severely criticized individual member states the day before the TSJ decisions.  Chile and Peru recalled their ambassadors for consultation after it.  Ecuador, an ally since the time of Hugo Chávez, distanced itself from Maduro.  On April 1, MERCOSUR invoked the Protocol of Ushuaia – the group’s democracy clause – against Venezuela, and it joined Colombia and Chile in a forceful public statement on behalf of UNASUR.  Mexico, historically a jealous guardian of the principle of non-intervention, has assumed the leadership in holding Venezuela accountable for its undemocratic practices.  As a result, the Permanent Council on April 3 approved a resolution condemning the TSJ decisions and committing to “undertake as necessary further diplomatic initiatives to foster the restoration of the democratic institutional system,” including convening a ministerial meeting.

Building a consensus for tougher action in the Permanent Council will be difficult, however.  Last week’s resolution was approved by 19 member states, but four abstained and 10 were absent.  Any proposal to suspend Venezuela will require two-thirds of the members’ affirmative votes.  Although there is still a long way to go to make the OAS part of the solution of the Venezuelan crisis, the General Secretary’s activism has set an important precedent in rallying a majority of states in the Americas to come together to discuss a member’s erosion of democratic principles and institutions – and to condemn the non-democratic actions of a democratically-elected government.  This is a first for the organization, and it is a big step toward fulfilling the original purpose of the drafters of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

April 10, 2017

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is a CLALS Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

Venezuela: Vicious Cycle Continues

By CLALS Staff

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

UNASUR has shown energy and flexibility as a facilitator during the Venezuela crisis, but neither the government, nor its opponents, nor the opposition’s allies in Washington have matched it – prolonging the vicious cycle that’s been plaguing the country for years.  Speaking as UNASUR, the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador reflected the continent’s frustration when they threw up their hands this week and left Caracas after another failed attempt to get a national dialogue on track.  Their statements represented a balance between the UNASUR members that are generally perceived as tolerant of the Venezuelan government’s “Bolivarian” revolution and those perceived as opposing it.  They reiterated calls, issued officially in Suriname on 16 May, for both sides to “achieve a broad dialogue that permits Venezuelans, without interference, to reach an accord that guarantees peaceful coexistence and stability in the country.”

The government, opposition and Washington have not heeded the appeal by UNASUR and the Vatican’s nuncio to be constructive and patient.  The government’s attack on opposition and student camps in early May and subsequent arrest of more than 200 protestors highlighted the authoritarian tendencies that have given momentum to the demonstrations.  The Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), representing important sectors of the opposition, gave the foreign ministers yet another list of demands – including a Truth Commission investigating rights violations (and not headed by the pro-government president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello) and the selection of an entirely new National Elections Council.  The MUD’s executive secretary declared that he has no interest in participating in a peña or chit-chat session, and said, “The ball is in the government’s court.”  Although U.S. Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson said during a hearing that sanctions were premature (a statement that she attributed to “confusion”), the foreign affairs committees in both house of the U.S. Congress – without objection from the Obama Administration – have passed bills authorizing an array of punitive measures against Venezuelan officials.  The legislation also authorizes an additional $15 million dollars in aid to the government’s opponents.

The less overtly political agenda that first sparked the protests in February – soaring crime rates, rocketing inflation, and shortages of basic goods and services – has been overshadowed by the shouts of opposition leaders eager to force President Maduro from office and by Maduro’s defenses from the plotting against him.  Demands that Maduro negotiate with a foreign-funded opposition that has as its clear goal his removal as constitutionally legitimate president – something no head of state in the hemisphere would accept – naturally keep his bases on edge.  Political leaders on both sides manipulate popular opinion and claim el pueblo as supporting them.  Another of each side’s real strengths is its ability to portray itself as a victim of the unfairness of the other – because their victimhood rationalizes whatever actions they wish to take.  In that regard, the U.S. sanctions against the government and subsidies to the opposition play into Maduro’s hand.  Washington’s extra $15 million is a drop in the bucket for the well-funded opposition, but the U.S. support is as clear a signal as any of its desired outcome.  With both the United States and important segments of the opposition appearing to aim for nothing short of regime change, UNASUR is wise to step aside and see if anyone decides to get serious about ending the crisis.  Should the situation on the ground deteriorate further, however, UNASUR will probably ramp up its engagement and press both sides to make concessions in exchange for regional support.

ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession

By Eric Hershberg

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is proof that being anointed successor by one’s patron on their deathbed isn’t adequate preparation for governing effectively or consolidating a revolutionary legacy.  Although being Hugo Chávez’s man got him into office, it obviously hasn’t been enough for Maduro to stem growing economic, political, and crime problems.  One element behind these protests is a widespread perception – including among some supporters of chavismo – that Maduro is a pale reflection of his benefactor and not up to the task of leading Venezuela.  Chávez hand-picked him in a hasty and half-hearted manner, and he didn’t bequeath to him a coherent set of policies, practices, or institutions that could ensure the continued advance of the Bolivarian Revolution.  Maduro inherited a state that was so weak institutionally and so dependent on Chávez personally that the jury remains out as to whether he has the capacity to keep all the pieces of Chávez’s legacy intact.

The Venezuelan president’s rocky road reflects the difficulty of the renovation of political leadership across ALBA nations.  Rather than nurture successors capable of carrying forward the transformations begun by founding leaders, one president after another has followed Chávez’s lead in dealing with the future by focusing primarily on extending their terms of office.  This past January Nicaragua’s national assembly cleared the way for Daniel Ortega, president since 2007, to run for a third term in 2016.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa likewise won a third consecutive term in 2013.  Last May Bolivia passed a law allowing Evo Morales to run for an unprecedented third term in 2014.  In none of these cases has the leadership sought to build the credentials of potential successors in the presidency, in stark contrast to what Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did with Dilma Rousseff or what Ricardo Lagos did with Michelle Bachelet.  This phenomenon is not unique to left-leaning governments – Alvaro Uribe and Alberto Fujimori, for instance, suffered similar temptations –, but it seems endemic to the ALBA governments and is particularly troubling to the extent that these are instances where the leadership aims to effect wholesale, lasting societal transformations through its enduring control over the state apparatus.

There is a distinctive sort of hyper-presidentialism emerging throughout the ALBA nations.  Chávez, Correa, Morales, and Ortega’s concentration of power in their own personas makes it particularly hard for future leaders to emerge.  Their political projects embody aspirations for fundamental societal transformations.  In that sense, they can reasonably be categorized as what the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci would label as historic projects, and even revolutionary ones.  But if a transformative, historic project fails to develop leaders and launch them into positions of growing responsibility and power, it is unlikely that it will succeed over the long run.  Lula could transfer power to Dilma, Lagos could do so with Bachelet, Tabare to José Mujica, and so on.  This is what made possible the conversion of eight-year projects into 16‑year projects, and so on.  The PRI, in Mexico, managed successions for seven decades, and presumably is poised to continue along that road now that it has regained the presidency.  Yet for some reason the ALBA governments have not taken this step.  Their leaders have angled toward caudillismos that have a medium-term appeal, but that almost certainly cannot be the foundation of a decades-long project for changing societies in need of transformations that they themselves articulate.  While their frequent successes in displacing traditional elites and thwarting well-financed oppositions are impressive, it is striking that they fail to build political institutions and leaderships capable of carrying on their own visions and political projects after they pass.  The ALBA presidents may calculate that dismantling the ancien regime is legacy enough, but history may judge them harshly for delaying the emergence of more effective and enduring institutions, and of leaders who can push their projects forward for many administrations to come.