OAS Secretary General’s Third Way Stumbles

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

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Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General, at the first day of General Assembly in Cancún, June 2017. / Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s effort to drive the organization’s actions on Venezuela through international mobilization appears to have run its course without success during the recent General Assembly.  From the outset, Almagro faced the tough dilemma of what to do when OAS members did not want to fulfill their commitments and were reluctant to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against the Venezuelan government.  As in most international organizations, the OAS Secretary General does not have strong authority to enforce its legal instruments and essentially had two options to cope with the dilemma:

  • To admit his lack of authority – and thereby signal to the world that the organization’s commitments, such as the Democratic Charter, are not credible. In the international system, there are plenty such non-credible and non-enforceable commitments, ranging from the EU Treaty (Article 7) to the Kyoto Protocol.
  • To use his limited powers to persuade member states from within – persuading national representatives to take action. This approach risks to be perceived from outside as inaction.  If persuasion succeeds and member states decide to enforce their commitments, the credit will most likely go to the member state playing the role of leader, and not to the institution.

Faced with Venezuelan President Maduro’s rejection of the OAS’s good offices and with member states’ preference to assign diplomatic leadership to UNASUR (over which Maduro had influence), Almagro chose a third way:  to drive OAS internal processes by pressing member states from outside via international public mobilization.  Through a series of actions in his own name – issuing reports, statements, and posts on social networks – Almagro called the attention of the international community and media to the OAS’s naming and shaming of Venezuela.  By doing so, he indirectly raised the cost of inaction of member states reluctant to take a strong stand.  Maduro’s increasingly undemocratic behavior, and the election of new governments in some key states, particularly Argentina and the United States, improved the odds of success.  Indeed, the OAS gave the Venezuela crisis unprecedented salience, and on April 3 the Permanent Council passed a resolution (approved by consensus but with only 17 states in the room) that, for the first time in OAS history, demonstrated that a democratically elected government could be condemned because of “unconstitutional alterations of the constitutional order.”  A core group of 14 countries – representing more than 90 percent of the hemisphere’s population – coalesced to back up the activist Secretary General.

  • The 47th General Assembly in Cancún was supposed to crown the strategy’s success by moving the OAS from a condemnation of Venezuela towards a common plan for engagement – specifically one embracing the anti-Maduro opposition’s demands. Venezuelan diplomats managed to convince some Caribbean states – dependent on Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program to withhold support of the resolution, causing the OAS-14’s plan to fail to achieve the two-thirds majority by only three votes.  (An alternative resolution put forward at the last minute by San Vicente also failed.)

Secretary General Almagro’s “third way” approach was risky, made under the assumption that the two traditional options would fail.  Reasonable observers can second-guess him, but there is little evidence that either of the other options would have fared any better.  The crisis in Venezuela is a hard case for the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and the OAS’s strict intergovernmentalism militates against decisive action.  Almagro’s public relations pressure from outside arguably worked with the larger states, but alienated the smaller.  A more cautious approach (as I argued here) perhaps would have helped to bring CARICOM states on board.  For now, what is clear is that the OAS will not play a major role in managing Venezuela’s democracy crisis – unless the already severe situation in the country shakes even the OAS fence sitters.  A pending question is whether the OAS might succeed in inventing a role for itself in post-crisis Venezuela.

June 30, 2017

Stefano Palestini Céspedes is a former CLALS Research 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.