A Crisis So Good, They Had to Discuss it Twice

The Venezuelan crisis faces a crucial week in Washington, with OAS set to discuss it twice this week alone. But did Secretary General Luis Almagro do his homework this time?

In this week’s Bello, The Economist concludes that OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro looks likely to fall short of the 18 votes needed to activate the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Are we so sure that’s right, though?

That will largely depend on the result of Tuesday’s session featuring former presidents Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic and Martín Torrijos of Panama. The government was clever enough to request this session and its intention is clear: Rodríguez Zapatero and company will try to show that the “dialogue process” is going full steam ahead, so there’s no need for such a fuss.

The government’s ultimate goal is to delay the recall referendum beyond next year. So pay careful attention to the attitude of certain countries after the former presidents speak. Hopefully, Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Paraguay, the US or Canada will push for specifics on the real reasons behind the multiple delays in the recall referendum process, the government blockade on humanitarian aid and the lack of respect for the National Assembly’s decisions. If they want to take the bull by the horns they could ask: “what have you achieved after two months and why should we believe that this process is getting somewhere?”

Thursday’s session will be a different story. Almagro will take the lead and present his report on the activation of the Democratic Charter in the Venezuelan case. In principle, the OAS Member States will then have to take a stand: to activate or not to activate?

But, could there be a compromise?

First, what does it actually mean to activate the Charter? According to Article 20, if the Charter is activated, the Permanent Council of the OAS would have to undertake “necessary diplomatic initiatives, including good offices, to foster the restoration of democracy.”

And that basically means more dialogue and negotiations to try to solve the ongoing crisis. Only after diplomatic initiatives fail, could there be a sanction, such as suspension from the organization. But Secretary Kerry has already said that that final measure is not in the cards.

So what might compromise look like? Perhaps the majority of member States will agree that, for the time being, there is no need to activate the Charter. In return, the government, UNASUR and Rodríguez Zapatero would allow for other former presidents to join the mediation efforts. This could give the process a boost of legitimacy considering that some foul play has recently been alleged.

The idea to expand the base of mediation is not new. In his report, Almagro himself suggested adding figures such as Felipe González, Andrés Pastrana and Sebastian Piñera, who are more sympathetic to the opposition’s case. In such a scenario, the government would also get what it wants: the Charter would not be activated, meaning there would be no official declaration that there is no democratic government in Venezuela.

Such a compromise would leave open the possibility of the Charter being activated at a later stage (for instance, if the recall referendum is not allowed to go ahead before January 10, 2017).

Alternatively, Venezuela could seek to sabotage Thursday’s session by insisting on an extraordinary meeting of OAS Foreign Ministers, which would use up valuable time and which they could sell as a tactical win. Alternatively, the government could seek to use the session to attack and delegitimize Secretary General Almagro. This could be done by seeking a declaration from the Permanent Council condemning his initiative to activate the Charter. By attacking Almagro personally rather than their favorite foreign enemy (the U.S.), the Venezuelan delegation would try to deviate the debate without alienating other governments.

More than the activation of the Charter, eventually what could really put the government against the diplomatic ropes, would be statements by foreign ministries that the government is no longer legitimate.

The bottom line is that the Charter is an imperfect instrument and the role of the international community is limited. If the above does not happen, and States simply vote after hearing Almagro’s report, The Economist is right that the proposal to activate the Charter would likely fall short of the required 18 votes.

And the reason is simple: in the Permanent Council it’s one-country-one-vote and Venezuela has invested a lot in its Caribbean alliance network…precisely to prepare for an eventuality such as Thursday’s. But with the value of Petrocaribe subsidies on the wane, how the Caribbean will vote is not a foregone conclusion like it once was. Even abstaining would send a powerful signal that they’re no longer unconditional supporters. And voting in favor of further “dialogue” would, at least, put them on record as recognizing there is a real crisis in Venezuela.

Henry: Please Don’t Go…

The president of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, announced that he will try to participate in Thursday’s session. But he shouldn’t. Venezuela will oppose his intervention. The debate will center on whether Ramos Allup can participate, drawing attention off of what is really important: the crisis.

Two years ago, María Corina Machado tried to do the same. After a painstaking eight-hour session on whether she could speak, the government managed, through procedural filibuster, to deny her the floor and for the session to be private. I bet Henry would agree that Almagro’s report already describes Venezuela’s situation fully and it is more important that countries debate on what is happening and what can be done to solve it.

So we should all chant that 1980s KC and the Sunshine Band’s hit, Henry: Please Don’t Go…

Regardless of whether Ramos Allup gets a speaking slot, this week will be a turning point for the Americas. Countries will have to decide whether to tackle the crisis and seek solutions or let fate (and hunger) decide Venezuela’s immediate future. The result of not demanding compliance with basic democratic principles could indeed be disastrous.