By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s second report on Venezuela, issued on March 14, reflects his personal commitment to enforce the principles enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, but risks getting ahead of the organization’s member states and could ultimately hurt the credibility of the charter and OAS. The 73-page document states that the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has become a “dictatorial regime” that violates “every article” of the Charter; concludes that all attempts at dialogue have failed; and essentially calls for the OAS to suspend Venezuela’s membership in accordance with the charter’s democracy clause. Almagro said the UNASUR negotiation (supported by the Vatican) has failed to achieve any of its proposed objectives and has become “a tool for reinforcing the regime’s worst authoritarian features domestically and, externally, for not engaging in international condemnation and pressure.”
- The report concludes with an ultimatum: If the government does not call for general elections, release all political prisoners, restore all laws it has annulled, and select a new electoral authority and a supreme tribunal in the next 30 days, Venezuela should be suspended from the OAS. Few observers believe Maduro could meet these conditions even if he wanted.
Almagro’s actions, including his forceful call for application of Article 21 of the Charter – the “democracy clause” – moves his office and the OAS into uncharted territory as it would be the first time it is applied against an elected government. Article 21 was applied against the government in Honduras that came to power in a coup in June 2009, but the sanctions were initiated at the request of ousted President Zelaya and strongly supported by Latin American governments – including Hugo Chávez – and Washington. To enforce Article 21 against an incumbent government, a strong consensus needs to be built.
The Secretary General’s showdown with President Maduro presents a test for the Charter and, ultimately, for the OAS, as it pushes the organization beyond its traditional institutional limits. Any decision on suspension must be approved by a two-thirds majority of member states, whose delegates represent executive branches that traditionally have shied from intervening in each other’s affairs. Some insiders also grumble that the Secretary General has fallen short in his consultation with the member states; instead he seems to take a partisan position such as by inviting Maduro’s opposition to OAS headquarters this week for a press conference. If the members back Almagro’s call for suspension, he will have demonstrated that principled arguments can break even strong institutional barriers – moving OAS into a new phase. In that case, the Secretary General together with the member states will need to come up with a post-suspension plan; only then will OAS become part of the solution to Venezuela’s crisis. If member states do not support the Secretary General’s call, Almagro will be respected as a leader moved by convictions, but the OAS will probably move one step down towards irrelevance.
March 21, 2017
* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is 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.