UNASUR and the Venezuelan Hot Potato

By Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont*

Ernesto Samper UNASUR

Photo Credit: Carlos Rodríguez/ANDES/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Venezuelan crisis, which the hemisphere has turned to UNASUR to resolve, could break the South American organization and overshadow its past successes in regional mediation.  UNASUR was created in 2008, amid the proliferation of regional organizations such as ALBA that excluded the United States and Canada, as an inter-governmental mechanism to promote regional autonomy, conflict prevention and resolution, and the coordination of public policies, particularly regarding social issues, security, infrastructure, and energy.  It has been driven by individual presidents’ leadership and managed by high-ranking officials and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, has not shown deep commitment to greater civil society participation.  Among its important successes have been defusing internal conflicts in Bolivia and Ecuador, as well helping reduce tensions between Ecuador and Colombia, and between Colombia and Venezuela.  In years past, the group’s effectiveness raised questions about the OAS’s comparative ability to deal with regional conflicts.

In recent years, however, UNASUR has suffered decline.  As the commodities boom ended, regional economies were hit hard, and internal political factors started to change the political map, undermining leftist governments and enabling the election of center-right governments less committed to the UNASUR vision.  This coincided with the profound decline of Venezuela as it fell into the abyss of hyperinflation, debt, scarcity, criminality, and debilitating political instability.  The Venezuelan opposition’s achievement of a parliamentary majority last December, after 17 years of Chavista hegemony, brought no relief as the government reacted with an all-out effort to block it.  UNASUR, which first sought to foster a dialogue between the government and the opposition in 2013, has repeatedly failed to broker a solution.  In May 2016 the organization turned to three former heads of state – Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Dominican Lionel Fernández, and Panamanian Martín Torrijos – to attempt mediation again, to no avail so far.  The government continues to resist change, and the opposition, in addition to remaining firm in its demands of a recall vote to remove Maduro and the unconditional release of political prisoners, has shown persistent mistrust of UNASUR and its representatives, whom they perceive as allies of the government. Such suspicions may not be unfounded, considering Zapatero’s objections regarding the participation of some relevant opposition leaders in the dialogue process.

For the first time in its almost 10 years of existence, UNASUR faces potential failure in its attempt to solve a strategically important political crisis in the region.  To hold off an initiative by OAS Secretary General Almagro to enforce the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela, the OAS Assembly called on UNASUR and the former presidents to renew mediation efforts yet again last month, but neither Maduro nor the opposition has budged from their fundamental positions.  The situation is, again, stalled.  Indeed, in the context of declarations, extraordinary sessions, initiatives and trips, the commitment to end the crisis in Venezuela still appears quite limited among OAS members, including UNASUR.  Governments supporting dialogue seem most eager to avoid risking valuable political capital both in the domestic and the international spheres.  Neither UNASUR nor the OAS is prepared to handle the Venezuelan hot potato, and both stand to lose credibility for this failure.  But UNASUR’s general lack of leadership and direction in recent years suggests that failure in this crisis, with implications beyond Venezuela’s borders, would be potentially fatal to the organization.  UNASUR, with previous achievements in social, political and regional matters, must now prove that it is still a viable regional mechanism, able to deal collectively with the political turbulence of a changing regional landscape.

July 6, 2016

* Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont are members of the analysis team of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES), a Latin-American think tank.

Brazil: Crises Hindering Foreign Policy

Dilma 2016

Photo Credit: Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / Flickr / Creative Commons

by Tullo Vigevani*

The pace of Brazil’s rise in international affairs since 2000 is likely to be slowed by the multiple crises facing President Dilma Rousseff’s government and the private sector, but Brasilia will strive as best it can to maintain its global and regional priorities.  Political tensions are soaring amid corruption indictments and severe economic contraction – the nearly 4 percent decline in GDP in 2015 is expected to be repeated this year, with increasingly negative social consequences.  The government faces growing criticism that extends beyond the principal opposition parties: its own party base and supportive labor unions and social movements criticizing Rousseff’s administration.  The corruption investigations have spread far beyond the national oil company, Petrobras, and into corporate networks across economic sectors, exacerbating a climate of growing anxiety.  Major media are railing against the President and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose detention for questioning by a judge last week deepens the crisis and further dims the already faint prospects for a restoration of stability in 2016.

These developments have created an element of paralysis in foreign policy.  Foreign minister Mauro Vieira, like his two immediate predecessors – Luis Alberto Figueiredo (2013-2015) and Antonio Patriota (2011-2013) – has been unable to sustain the “active and proud” policy of Lula-era Foreign Minister Celso Amorim (2003-2010).  After basking not long ago in the fruits of its assertive foreign policies – including selection as host of the 2016 Olympics – Brazil’s government now is dealing with matters such as the Zika virus and microcephaly taking front stage.  Rousseff on one hand is barraged by criticism of a lack of macroeconomic rigor and the failure to better integrate Brazil’s economy into global production chains, and on the other she is criticized for slow investments and development policies.  Her ambition to promote South American trade and economic integration is being undermined by the recessionary pressures confronting Brazil and neighboring economies buffeted by the end of the commodities boom.

  • MERCOSUR remains a priority for the administration. Criticism by liberal economists will mount, however, that Mercosur, as a customs union, discourages potential agreements with developed economies, particularly the United States, thus exacerbating Brazil’s de-industrialization.  There is evidence that Mercosur helps companies that produce high value-added goods: whereas in 2014 manufacturing accounted for 77 percent of Brazilian exports within Mercosur, it accounted for only 4 percent of exports to China.  (The figures for the European Union and the U.S. were 37 and 55 percent, respectively).  Progress on trade agreements with the United States and other developed countries appears unlikely, but agreements on trade promotion seem likely.
  • Cooperation with UNASUR will remain a priority as well, but plans that rely on Brazil’s ability to provide resources face new political and economic restraints. The Ministries of Finance and Planning and the Central Bank reportedly are going to rein in contributions of the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), and funding for the South American Council of Infrastructure and Planning (COSIPLAN).  Initiatives such as the South American Defense Council will continue.  Clearly, state enterprises such as Petrobras and private-sector conglomerates will face limits on their foreign activities, reducing Brazil’s influence in the region.

The relationship between domestic and international affairs is inescapable, and Brazil is no exception.  But even as the domestic political and economic conditions deteriorate for a period, the country will not turn inward or abandon its interest in the international arena, particularly with China and the BRICS.  However rough the road ahead, President Rousseff’s government appears likely to remain steadfast in its approach to regional diplomatic and political organizations – including the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the OAS – even though resources will be tight.  It will remain active, within its diminished capacity, in an array of multilateral settings ranging from UN peacekeeping operations and the FAO, to the G-20, WTO and IMF.  Moreover, senior officials in Brasilia, including in the Foreign Ministry, appear committed to stronger bilateral ties with core partners, particularly the United States, and continued Brazilian support for democratic stability throughout Latin America, including in resolution of the Venezuelan crisis.  Even though resources and performance may suffer, a robust role in the hemisphere appears likely to remain a pillar of Brazil’s foreign policy.  The idea of Brazil’s autonomy in the international arena has deep roots, and whatever the domestic criticism leveled against the Rousseff administration, these will be matters of interpretation rather than a fundamental questioning of Brazil’s greater insertion into global processes and of political and economic interdependence.

March 7, 2016

*Tullo Vigevani is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the State University of São Paulo (UNESP) and a researcher at the Center for Studies on Contemporary Culture (Cedec) and the Brazilian National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU), in São Paulo.

Ignoring MERCOSUR and UNASUR at Your Peril

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Mercosur map

Participating countries in MERCOSUR. Image Credit: Immanuel Giel (modified) / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Pundits who dismiss MERCOSUR and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) as failed attempts at Latin American economic integration should look again.  MERCOSUR has presided over an explosion in intra-regional trade among its four original member states (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) from just over US$ 5 billion at its launch in 1991 to US$ 43 billion by 2014.  UNASUR, for its part, is credited with thwarting a coup attempt against Evo Morales in 2008 and putting a damper on continental arms races.

  • MERCOSUR and UNASUR member countries have taken additional important steps toward convergence since 2014, when MERCOSUR’s highest governing body adopted “CMC Decision 32,” which allows initiatives pursued by either collective to be binding on both if they arise from a set of goals and objectives common to both. The document reaffirms the UNASUR founding treaty stipulation that “South American integration shall be achieved through an innovative process that includes all of the achievements and advances by the processes of MERCOSUR and CAN [Andean Community].”  Chile has spearheaded this effort as a means of reducing duplication of efforts, and is also attempting to bridge ideological differences between the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) and MERCOSUR to further build Latin American unity.

Given the relentless negative assessment of both integration projects, multinational pharmaceutical companies were caught off guard when MERCOSUR and UNASUR forced them late last year to make substantial price cuts for public-sector purchases of Darunavir, an antiretroviral to combat HIV-AIDS, as well as Sofosbuvir, used with other medications to treat Hepatitis C.  Both drugs are on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.  As a result of CMC Decision 32/14, the Ministers of Health of all the South American nations met in Montevideo on September 11, 2015, and launched a joint MERCOSUR/UNASUR committee to negotiate with multinational pharmaceutical companies on the prices for bulk purchases of certain high-priced drugs.  The committee, made up of representatives from each government’s agency responsible for purchasing medicines, won major price cuts last November – a steep reduction for Darunavir from Hetero Labs as well as lower prices with Gilead for Sofosbuvir.  The new costs were premised on the lowest amount charged to any one of the member governments, and enabled Chile’s Ministry of Health to pay 90 percent less than what it previously paid for Darunavir.  The South American governments as a whole are expected to save US$ 20 million in 2016 on purchases of this anti-retroviral.  A proposed 14 percent reduction in the cost of the combination Sofosbuvir-Ledispaver drug for Hepatitis C – if accepted by the MERCOSUR/UNASUR committee – would enable further savings.

The South American governments have their eyes set on several additional high-priced medications, with a particular focus on drugs used to treat cancer.  In order to aid the committee’s work, UNASUR is creating a data bank of the prices charged by the multinationals for specified medicines purchased by the public health sector in each member state.  The fact that the purchases are made jointly through the Pan American Health Organization’s already existing Strategic Fund opens the possibility that countries in Central America and the Caribbean can benefit as well.  It also means that all these countries can access the Fund’s capital account and do not need to have the cash in hand to acquire medications required to address public health emergencies.  MERCOSUR and UNASUR – often dismissed as ineffective – are demonstrating that integration produces tangible results.

February 11, 2016

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and is former chair of Western Hemisphere Area Studies at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (2011-15).

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that “a 14 percent reduction in the cost of its combination Sofosbuvir-Ledispaver drug for Hepatitis C will enable Chile’s Ministry of Health to pay 90 percent less than what it previously paid for Darunavir.”  The outcomes of the cost negotiations for the two medications are unconnected.

Venezuelan Elections: Economic Crisis Turns Up the Heat on Chavismo

By Michael M. McCarthy*

A faded legacy. Photo Credit: Julio César Mesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

A faded legacy for Chavismo? Photo Credit: Julio César Mesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

Twenty-four long months since their country’s last national election, Venezuelans head back to the polls to elect a new National Assembly on December 6 in a tense political climate – with no promise that the government will respect the opposition’s near-certain victory.  All 167 seats in the unicameral body will be up for grabs in a race polarized between Chavismo’s pro government coalition and the Mesa de Unidad Democrática opposition coalition.  Thanks largely to a rapidly deteriorating economy, the government’s approval rating decreased from 50 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in September, according to the national Venebarómetro poll.  A range of polls in September indicated the MUD is poised to win either a simple or “qualified” (60 percent) majority.  Observers generally agree that the main measure of success for Chavismo is preventing the MUD from obtaining a two-thirds majority, and that blocking a qualified majority would be a major triumph.

For ordinary Venezuelans the campaign is overshadowed by the massive economic crisis.  Skyrocketing inflation, severe shortages of basic goods and services, and reduced social assistance programs are contributing to tensions on the street, where the campaign is not as present as in years past.  Nevertheless, heavy turnout is still expected – 66 percent of eligible voters participated in the last National Assembly elections in 2010, and pollsters report a strong intention to vote.

  • The MUD has shaped its campaign around leveraging the vote as a mechanism for punishing economic mismanagement and restoring some institutional balance to a political system that barely reflects opposition voices at the national level. Skepticism of the National Electoral Board, which rejected the MUD’s request for international electoral observation by the OAS, EU or UN, has increased.  Slashes to budgetary support for opposition governors and mayors, while the government channels funds to unelected parallel state and municipal authorities, make supporters wonder whether a victory will be fully respected.
  • The government refreshed its slate of candidates by promoting generational and gender diversity, but stalwarts, including current National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello, remain prominent. The party is distributing last-minute pork to mobilize voters, and it’s working the system’s rural bias – each department is automatically allocated three deputies – where strong government presence gives it a strategic advantage.  Strikingly, the Chávez legacy has become a liability for President Maduro because the former President was much more charismatic and economic conditions were considerably better during his tenure.

The Maduro administration seems to have run out of diversionary moves after exaggerated external threats from Colombia and Guyana faded.  It is also on the defensive after the Rousseff administration, Maduro’s most powerful diplomatic partner, expressed unhappiness about Caracas’s opposition to its choice of a Brazilian political heavyweight to lead UNASUR’s “electoral accompaniment mission.”  The President has also been set on back on his heels by intensified international criticism of the trial and conviction of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who, according to a state attorney who worked the case, was sent to jail for 14 years on fraudulent charges.  Regardless of the outcome on December 6, the direction of the country is highly uncertain.  Maduro has said he’ll accept the results “whatever they are,” but he has also said “we have to win, by whatever means possible” (como sea and cualquier manera), and that if the opposition wins “I will not hand over the revolution” but rather “proceed to govern with the people in a civic-military union.”  In the next couple weeks, the government may still try to throw the opposition off course, but the MUD does not seem interested in renewing street protests – more violence is unlikely to advance its objectives. Neither do its leaders seem confident that a renewal of talks on rebuilding democratic institutions will help.

November 9, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

OAS: Almagro’s Challenges

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The OAS’s new Secretary General, Luis Almagro Lemes, appears to be steering his organization toward a coordinating role that, he hopes, places it above the fray of hemispheric tensions.  He has not chafed at Washington’s version of democracy promotion, and indeed has embraced elements of it.  He has readily admitted the “inexorable conclusion” that the OAS needs to be “revamped and modernized”; that it needs to “reinforce its legitimacy”; and that its structure and resources need to be better realigned with the four pillars of its mission—democracy, human rights, security, and integral development.  His promises of internal reform so far have not been radically different from those put forth by his beleaguered predecessor, José Miguel Insulza, or even diverged from proposals embodied in U.S. legislation passed in 2013.  They have been articulated, however, in the sort of Washington consultancy language that might help his cause in the U.S. capital, such as references to evolving “from the OAS’s traditional command and control toward an organization that operates like a matrix geared to results in which the hemispheric and national dimensions feed into and enrich each other.”  Elected in March and inaugurated in May, in June Almagro received a mandate from the OAS General Assembly to restructure the General Secretariat, reorganize old offices into new ones, and implement other aspects of his plan.

Regional reactions to Almagro’s election and reform plan have been positive if sometimes not overly enthusiastic.  At the General Assembly meeting, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Blinken spoke of a “new chapter … in the history of the OAS” and said, “We have a new secretary general, a new strategic vision statement, and renewed attention to genuine reform.”  South America’s preeminent power has been generally aloof toward the OAS, but the Brazilian Senate in mid-July approved a new OAS permanent representative, and last week Brasilia paid $3 million of its $18 million in late dues—modest relief from the slow strangulation caused by dire cash-flow issues because of non-payment by several key countries.  Almagro has also won support in Latin America through his repeated signals of a desire to work more closely with other hemispheric bodies—even CELAC, which was created in 2011 as a direct challenge to the OAS and supposed U.S. influence over it.  He pledged to “seek out areas where we can complement the work of other bodies,” citing by name CELAC, UNASUR, SICA, CARICOM, and MERCOSUR.  According to press reports, his close cooperation with UNASUR as Foreign Minister of Uruguay in 2010‑15 lends credibility to that promise.  Almagro also has won regional praise for pledging to continue efforts for bring Cuba back into the OAS as a full member—building on the success of the Summit of the Americas in April driven by the Washington-Havana rapprochement.

Outgoing Secretary General Insulza was a relatively easy act to follow because, often unfairly, his image was tattered after 10 years in the crossfire between Washington and the countries pushing to undermine U.S. influence in Latin America.  Almagro appears eager to push the re-set button, and the success of the Summit of the Americas and his pledges on democracy, reform, and hemispheric cooperation have given him a good start.  But leading the OAS is going to take more than artful rhetoric, internal restructuring, and a few reforms.  President Obama’s move on Cuba removes one major irritant from hemispheric relations, but an effective Secretary General is going to have to navigate the shoals of longstanding North-South tensions.  The “spirit of genuine and equal partnership” that Deputy Secretary Blinken spoke of wanting with the OAS will be difficult to achieve, and the supporters of CELAC, UNASUR, and other alternatives to the OAS will find it equally tough to accept the OAS as a valid venue for debate and compromise.  Almagro will also have to show that he can run the organization in a professional and modern way to overcome the perception left by his predecessor of weak management of the institution.  He has declared himself a man of practical solutions, not ideology, but pleasing everyone—trying to be a coordinator who threatens no one’s interests—may not be a workable strategy for long.  If the OAS is to fulfill its mission, moreover, the United States and others will have to give Almagro the space to do his job.

July 27, 2015

OAS: New Leadership, Old Challenges

By Aaron Bell and Fulton Armstrong

José Miguel Insulza and Luis Almagro Lemes Photo Credit: OEA - OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

José Miguel Insulza and Luis Almagro Lemes Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Uruguayan diplomat Luis Almagro, elected secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) last week, says he wants to revitalize the hemispheric organization – a herculean, if not impossible, task.  Almagro was the only candidate remaining after Guatemalan Eduardo Stein and Peruvian Diego García-Sayán withdrew from the race – the former for health concerns, and the latter due to a perceived lack of support from his government.  Almagro previously served as Foreign Minister under former president José Mujica and is a member of his Movimiento de Participación Popular, whose left-leaning sympathies led observers to wonder whether Almagro could draw sufficient backing even running unopposed.  But Almagro received formal support from several prominent nations ahead of time, including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States, and he got 33 of 34 votes (Guyana abstained) to secure his election.  Following the election, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the new Secretary General to “lead the OAS through this genuine reform process by helping to refocus the OAS on its core pillars – democracy, human rights, sustainable development, and citizen security,” all while resolving its fiscal challenges.  “We look to [him] for his leadership, but we want him to know that he does not stand alone.”  His five-year term begins in May.

In his acceptance speech, Almagro stated that he intends to rise above the role of crisis manager and facilitate “the emergence of a revitalized OAS,” but major challenges await him:

  • The political crisis in Venezuela has long challenged the OAS, and an escalation in sanctions and rhetoric from the United States has made its balancing act harder. Current Secretary General José Miguel Insulza criticized the Obama administration’s national security warnings while also calling out the Maduro government for the arrest of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma and its resistance to dialogue with the opposition.  Almagro has been critical of U.S. sanctions as well, and quietly worked behind the scenes to encourage negotiations between political opponents in Venezuela, but his public silence on abuses by the Maduro government worries his critics.
  • The Cuba issue will also put Almagro in a tight spot. Havana’s participation in the Summit of the Americas is likely to build pressures for its readmission to the OAS, and Almagro’s record shows he’ll be sympathetic.  But the process could be fraught with risks for the new Secretary General.  Outgoing Secretary General Insulza bears scars attesting to U.S. Senators’ penchant for personalizing attacks when the OAS doesn’t go their way.
  • Any reform agenda is going to get battered from both sides. The OAS mandates are broad and expensive, and members don’t agree on priorities.  As Deputy Secretary Blinken’s comments suggest, Washington wants the organization to focus on its agenda, but much of South America, particularly the ALBA countries, wants the OAS to pull away from U.S. influence.  Nor do differences lie strictly along North-South lines, as made clear by protests during last year’s general assembly against Brazil’s resolution condemning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Almagro seems to have the experience and temperament to be an excellent choice for the job, and his coming from Uruguay, whose good offices have credibility virtually everywhere, may serve the OAS well.  But the challenges will be daunting.  He faces several ongoing crises, particularly in Venezuela, and ongoing splits within the region over the OAS’s role.  One tempting option would be for Almagro to try to distance himself and the organization from Washington – a difficult task at best.  Not only is his headquarters several hundred meters from the White House and the State Department, but the United States government (and to a lesser extent Canada) provides substantially more funding for the OAS’s general fund and through special donations than any other member state.  Almagro’s actions will also be watched closely by U.S. conservatives who, stung by President Obama’s move toward diplomatic relations with Cuba, are looking for a fight over Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and even on some issues with Brazil.  Whatever Almagro does, it will be with the black cloud of the OAS’s financial difficulties over him, and the possibility that failing to successfully balance all of these issues may weaken the OAS and benefit regional organizations like CELAC and UNASUR, which are smaller and less well established, but independent of North American influence.

March 23, 2015

Venezuela: Obama into the Fray

By Michael M. McCarthy

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The March 9 decision by the Obama Administration to sanction Venezuelan government officials – this time freezing the U.S.-based assets of seven of them – appears to be drawing Washington into a conflict it recently viewed as a problem for Latin America to solve.  Implementing the “targeted sanctions,” the U.S. government made the determination that Venezuela’s “situation” was a threat to its national security.  Such a determination is not unique – Washington continues to declare Colombian narco-trafficking a national security threat – but the language in this case is widely seen as inflammatory because the cited source of the threat is President Maduro’s government itself.

  • The action generated a predictably exaggerated reaction from Caracas.  Maduro, who faces an economic crisis with no end in sight and has approval ratings of 22 percent, took the sanctions as an opportunity to change the conversation.  He branded them as “hypocritical,” describing Washington as the “real threat” to world order and criticizing Obama as returning to Cold War-style tactics.  On March 14 the armed forces conducted hyped-up exercises to “counter” the U.S. threat and the day after Congress granted Maduro Decree Powers through an “Anti-Imperialist Ennabling Law for Peace” that lasts through the end of the year.
  • Reactions to the U.S. measure varied greatly among opposition leaders. Governor Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s candidate in the last two presidential elections, echoed the U.S. position that the sanctions are targeted against “the corrupt government elite,” rather than the country or the Venezuelan people.  Governor Henri Falcón, a former military officer who left chavismo’s ranks in 2010 criticized them as “disrespectful.”  The Mesa de Unidad coalition stressed that Venezuela is “not a threat to any country.”  Whereas more hardline opponents are behind the scenes happy about stepped-up U.S. involvement, the more moderate camps – including Capriles’s – appear puzzled about the timing because Washington’s actions effectively moved Maduro to the safer ground of defending sovereignty.
  • The sanctions ignited strong criticism from some regional players.  Nonetheless, they renewed UNASUR’s efforts to mediate, which had gotten off to an unpromising start in Caracas on March 6.  An emergency March 14 UNASUR meeting in Quito issued two declarations – one strongly rejecting the sanctions, even calling for Obama to rescind them, and another reiterating support for the UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper’s pursuit of “the most open dialogue possible” in Venezuela.

The Obama Administration’s stated reasons for the sanctions – measures similar to those proposed in the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Law” last year – are not surprising.  Washington has watched with dismay as Maduro has cracked down on opponents, alleged U.S.-supported coup-plotting, and hemmed in U.S. embassy personnel and even tourists with increasingly tough limitations on their activities.  With the opening to Cuba ongoing, the Obama administration may have calculated it could try to appease conservatives in the U.S. Congress and endure a hit to its regional image for imposing sanctions.  Emboldened by UNASUR’s criticism of the sanctions and Europe’s unwillingness to follow Obama’s lead, Maduro will almost certainly continue efforts to play the anti-imperialist card for a while.  The U.S. has shifted the action back into the bilateral relationship, breathing new life into a previously closed chapter in the Venezuelan crisis.

March 16, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Venezuela: Crossing the Line

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Marcos Oliveira / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Marcos Oliveira / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Maduro’s arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma reflects a new level of vindictiveness and almost desperation at home – and threatens to leave his government more isolated than ever in Latin America.  In a three-hour televised speech, Maduro alleged that the mayor, whom he called a vampire and fascist, was plotting with military officers to remove him from office.  Ledezma has been a strident opponent – playing a prominent role in last year’s salida movement – and the Associated Press cites unnamed sources as acknowledging the existence of identified coupists.  But Maduro’s evidence against Ledezma was negligible, mostly a document on a national transition accord.  Other Maduro opponents are also reportedly to be arrested soon.  At the same time, the President said that the U.S. Embassy was trying to turn the military against him by, he alleged, calling generals’ wives to say their U.S. visas were being revoked.

The increasingly repressive nature of the Maduro regime is drawing scorn from throughout Latin America, including countries that previously tolerated the excesses of deceased President Hugo Chávez.  UNASUR has announced it will hold an extraordinary meeting soon on the deepening crisis caused by Ledezma’s arrest, and the Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador will make an urgent visit to Caracas this week.  Chilean President Bachelet and Senate President (and daughter of the assassinated President) Isabel Allende expressed their “concern” over the arrest.  Colombian President Santos, heretofore restrained in his criticism, told the press he was “worried.”  Amnesty International also condemned the action.  Washington’s vehement denials of Maduro’s allegations that it was involved have not been challenged.

Maduro’s Latin American neighbors are likely to continue hewing to traditional non-interventionism, but even the left appears to regret that recent events confirm the monumental squandering of the Chávez revolution’s opportunity to carry out a radical project of redistribution and propose an alternative model for the region.  Chavismo had a social base, but Chávez and, to a much greater extent, Maduro have failed to develop a democratic or economically coherent approach to their revolutionary project.  Venezuela is now paying the price and, as many predicted, the situation is getting worse before getting better.  It is impossible to say how and when the impasse will break, and hard to identify who’s capable of ending the misery – be it the military or a faction within Maduro’s own party.  It’s clear, though, that this crisis is not sustainable and regional patience with it is growing thin.

February 23, 2015

U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela: To What End?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Common Cause -Embassy of Venezuela DC / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

President Obama plans to sign the “Venezuela Defense of Democracy and Civil Society Act” into law, but its lack of clear objectives seems likely to muddle Washington’s desired outcome.  The bill, approved last week by voice vote in the Senate and House, calls for punishing Venezuelan government officials involved in human rights abuses, an authority the White House already has.  It includes national security waivers that allow the President final say on which officials will have their visas revoked – denying them entry into the United States – and have any U.S. assets they own frozen.  After initially voicing skepticism about the wisdom of such measures, the Obama administration came around to supporting them.  Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pushed the bill hard in May after episodes of violent suppression of anti-government street demonstrations painted a grim picture of the human rights situation.  The Venezuelan foreign ministry’s reaction to the legislation has been strident, and President Maduro said, “If the crazy path of sanctions is imposed, President Obama, I think you’re going to come out looking very bad.”

President Obama wasn’t alone in switching positions over the bill.  Senator Bob Corker, who’s expected to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress that begins next month, had embraced the State Department’s earlier view that sanctions would undermine international talks engineered by UNASUR and the Vatican.  The Caracas government’s refusal to make concessions in the talks undermined that argument, however, and a three-way diplomatic dustup between the U.S., Aruba, and Venezuela over another issue – Aruba’s refusal to extradite Venezuela’s designated ambassador, a former Venezuelan army official, to the United States on narco-trafficking charges – further frustrated Washington players.  Corker asserted that the incident showed that Venezuela’s “complicity with criminal activity” could not go unchecked since it directly undermined U.S. interests.  Immediately after the extradition episode, the Obama administration imposed unilateral sanctions – travel and visa bans – on a dozen unnamed Venezuelan officials, laying the groundwork for Menendez and Rubio to reintroduce their legislation and drive it home before Congress adjourned for the holidays.  Corker endorsed the bill, although he highlighted that a “regional dialogue” remained the best option for finding a “negotiated, democratic way forward” to address human rights issues.

Other than punishing reported human rights offenders and making an example of them the new bill is unclear on how it could help resolve the deep political crisis that has given rise to the protests and subsequent abuses.  With Maduros popularity plummeting to new lows, strident rhetoric condemning U.S. intervention could give him a modest boost by bolstering his claim that Washington is part of an economic war against Venezuela.  It is far too early to tell whether that nationalistic narrative will work in the governments favor as the countrys dire shortages have become permanent and economic suffering is increasingly blamed on Maduros policies and declining oil prices.  If human rights really are the U.S. top concern, Washington might want to be more sensitive to the positions of PROVEA and other Venezuelan human rights groups, which have denounced the legislation despite its inclusion of funding for Venezuelan civil society groups. If punishing rights abusers is Washingtons way of pressing for sustainable change in Venezuela, then it needs to state the case that penalizing measures imposed since 2008 have made a difference.  Another option, contained in Senator Corker’s observation about a “negotiated, democratic way forward,” could be to renew support for talks sponsored by South American countries, as these are more likely to reduce tensions, improve rights, and give moderates space to promote electoral solutions.

December 18, 2014

Venezuela: More of the Same Tragedy

By Michael McCarthy*

The gruesome murder of a pro-government Socialist Party deputy and the decision by the opposition coalition’s Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) to suspend a rally in light of the tragedy foretold an opportunity to restart a national dialogue.  But unlike in January 2014, when the murder of beauty queen Monica Spears and her family created momentum for talks on security between the government and opposition, an unfortunate and familiar downward spiral has begun.  High-level government officials’ provocative accusations that the murder of Robert Serra, one of the Venezuelan Parliament’s youngest members, was the work of right-wing actors have deepened yet again the political polarization in Venezuela.  UNASUR’s new Secretary General, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, surprisingly weighed in, strongly implying that Colombian paramilitaries were involved in Serra’s murder.  The government has long attempted to link members of Venezuela’s opposition with paramilitary groups, and Samper’s impartiality will forever be questioned by the opposition if the allegation is not proven. At Serra’s funeral, President Maduro described the MUD’s new Executive Secretary, Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, as a piece of “garbage.”  Maduro’s name-calling is another example of the government using polarization as a tool to encourage supporters to close ranks.

Before the stabbing deaths of Serra and his female companion by unidentified assailants, the government was attempting to build momentum to resume the UNASUR-sponsored talks that had been frozen since May 3.  Samper had informed the MUD and opposition members of his intention to restart talks, and had described Maduro as “a man of dialogue, a man of peace,” adding that there were good prospects for “working a lot of things for the good of the region.”  But at this point any good will among the parties seems to have evaporated.  Moreover, for MUD secretary Torrealba, who originally said his goal was to change the MUD’s profile to mobilize a wider base of support, the primary task remains building MUD unity at a moment when different factions of the opposition are promoting widely varying initiatives.  Torrealba has little negotiating experience and does not enjoy the same access to elite sectors as his predecessor did.  His precarious position calls into question whether the MUD could negotiate as a coalition even if talks restarted.

Once again, centrifugal forces seem to be prevailing in Venezuela.  This trend raises the question of whether Venezuelan society is not only “wounded and resentful,” as Jesuit Political Scientist Arturo Sosa says, but on the verge of an estallido social – social explosion.  Mechanisms for mediating conflict through political discussion remain in place and appear unlikely to disappear completely, but confrontations are likely to continue flaring up regularly.

*Michael McCarthy is a CLALS Research Fellow.

October 7, 2014