By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*
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.