Maduro just crossed the line — is it time the OAS made Venezuela a ‘pariah state’?

As the Maduro regime cancels the leadership referendum process, the Organization of American States cannot ignore its antidemocratic actions any longer, writes former ambassador Allan Culham.

By: /
October 27, 2016
Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

"For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law.”

The origins of this infamous phrase can be debated, but it most likely originated with Oscar Benavides, who was president of Peru from 1914-’15 and again from 1933-’39. Benavides is often described as someone who clearly understood the hard realities of the Peruvian politics of his era. But nowhere is this cynical principle being more assiduously applied than in the case of modern-day Venezuela. 

Last week’s decision of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE in Spanish) to suspend the presidential recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro has elevated this cynical truism to a whole new level.

The push to remove Maduro from office comes after years of economic decline leading to shortages of basic goods and services, a deteriorating security situation, and an increasingly autocratic and militaristic regime.

Over the past several months opposition groups have been pushing for a presidential recall referendum, a democratic process that Venezuela’s constitution allows, should they be able to collect enough signatures. But despite many months of effort by the opposition, the CNE — controlled by its Maduro government-appointed members — ruled last month that if certain conditions were met, a recall referendum would only take place in the first quarter of 2017. That was a key decision because, based on recall referendum rules, it meant that even if Venezuelans were to vote Maduro out of office, his vice president would serve out his term, which expires in 2019. In other words, the CNE has already been putting up roadblocks against getting Maduro out.

The latest decision to suspend the referendum campaign in its entirety is yet another blatant attempt by the government to side step the democratic process. This decision came as the opposition was preparing for the next stage in the campaign – a drive in which it was required to collect the signatures of 20 percent of Venezuela’s registered voters, or roughly four million people. All indications were that this target would have been easily attainable.

Human rights, rule of law and democracy are three elements that are clearly in short supply in today’s Venezuela. The centralization of power within the presidency and the undermining of the other democratic institutions of the Venezuelan government were long-established policies of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s more charismatic predecessor.  While serving as president from 1999 until his death in 2013, Chavez systematically consolidated his power by suborning the functions of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, military, police, National Assembly and, yes, the CNE. This concentration of power within the presidency has been further consolidated under Maduro to ensure the continued survival of his government against a rising tide of unrest amongst his own citizens.

Now, acting as judge, jury and executioner, Maduro publicly stated his intentions never to allow the holding of a referendum against his presidency. True to his wishes, the CNE has halted the referendum campaign after five regional courts, all in states governed by Maduro’s allies, ordered the opposition signature drive be suspended due to alleged fraud in an initial signature-gathering process in May.

"Human rights, rule of law and democracy are three elements that are clearly in short supply in today’s Venezuela."

With the cancellation of the referendum process, the Maduro regime has clearly stepped well beyond the democratic line in the sand. In the face of such egregious violations of democratic norms in Venezuela, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the international community must now act to preserve what remnants of democratic tradition remain in Venezuela and to encourage the peaceful return to the constitutional order. Suspending Venezuela from the OAS at this time would serve this purpose.

Article 19 of the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States, of which Venezuela is a signatory, clearly states that a country is in violation of the Charter if there is an “unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order or an unconstitutional alteration in the democratic regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.” The OAS has long ignored this basic tenet when it comes to Venezuela. Venezuela, through the support of the core members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA in Spanish) and its purchased friends in the Caribbean through the PetroCaribe oil alliance, has long and successfully avoided sanction from the OAS for its undemocratic behaviour. 

“Diplomatic initiatives" to encourage “dialogue” between the government and the opposition have also failed (the latest being an international mediation group in the form of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and former presidents Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic and Martin Torrijos of Panama). Invoking the Democratic Charter would lead to Venezuela being suspended from its participation in the OAS. The last time such a suspension was invoked was with respect to Cuba in 1962.

But that is easier said than done. The leverage of the international community with respect to Venezuela is limited. The Maduro regime remains impervious to outside pressure, preferring to blame its problems on an alleged combination of the machinations of the “far right,” the scourges of neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism, and direct pressure from the U.S. government. As such, we cannot expect quick results or that international pressure can bear fruit in Venezuela. But isolating Venezuela from the OAS and establishing it as a “pariah state” within the Americas would give those democratic forces within Venezuela — including the thousands marching this week in protest — heart in knowing that they are not acting alone, without the support of the international community.

Meanwhile, the plight of the many political prisoners in Venezuela also remains unresolved. Nowhere is this more apparent and emblematic than the arbitrary and continued imprisonment of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

Following Lopez’s arrest on February 18, 2014, Maduro accused him of “treasonous acts” and, in effect, convicted him in the “name of the people.” He sent a clear signal to the judiciary of just what outcome he wanted. The duly compliant court found Lopez guilty and sentenced him to 14 years in prison. He now remains confined to a military prison in Caracas. To date, the Maduro regime has been impervious to calls from the United Nations and many governments in the hemisphere, including Canada, for the release of its political prisoners. 

The fact that political prisoners still remain in any country of the Americas is a blight upon our shared democratic values as embodied in the Democratic Charter. It is also a serious embarrassment to the OAS, which has long prided itself on being the champion of human rights in the hemisphere.

Former President Hugo Chavez often referred to his “socialism of the 21st century” as la revolucion bonita – the beautiful revolution. But there is nothing beautiful about what is happening in Venezuela today.