- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Last week, an annual meeting of the Organization of American States came and went without any action on crisis-torn Venezuela. A resolution calling for the government to end the monthslong violence, respect separation of powers, and cease efforts to rewrite the country’s constitution amid the turmoil was thwarted by a clutch of left-wing, anti-American regimes, aided and abetted by several other governments, notably long-standing Caribbean democracies.
While the resolution required a two-thirds supermajority of 23 votes (out of 35), supporters mustered 20 in favor, with five against and eight abstaining (Venezuela did not vote, in keeping with its pledge to leave the organization, although it was present in full diplomatic force). Most tellingly, if one were to add up the populations of the countries with governments that supported the measure versus those of the ones that rejected it or abstained, the totals would come to 881 million for versus 62 million against. That is 94 percent of the region favoring action.
Unfortunately, the results of the Cancún General Assembly feed into the historical narrative of the OAS as a feckless debating society incapable of responding to regional crises. But it would be a mistake at this point to give up on the OAS as the primary forum to concentrate U.S. diplomatic efforts regarding Venezuela. First, it remains the only serious and legitimate institution for hemispheric action in the face of the ongoing abuse of democratic norms in Venezuela (in contrast to a gaggle of other organizations created by the late Hugo Chávez to isolate the United States and Canada).
Secondly, as the above numbers demonstrate, the overwhelming consensus is for hemispheric action — with all the major governments: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, plus Canada and the United States, in support. In other words, we are too close to regional unity on Venezuela to stand down in the face of a few ideological disruptors and several other governments that have significant stakes in good relations with the United States.
Retrograde leftist governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua are lost causes. However, it is egregious that governments in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Haiti are being given free passes to impede hemispheric action on Venezuela. And then there is the subgroup of Caribbean states: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Granada, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
It is sad to see countries of such strong democratic traditions essentially providing diplomatic cover to a government not only trampling on the democratic rights of the Venezuelan people, but literally trampling them in the streets.
Some say the Caribbean support stems from their gratitude for Petrocaribe, a relic of the Chávez era that supplies oil to these countries at preferential rates (even though the program is a shell of its former self due to the collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry). But this ignores decades of U.S. aid and assistance to the Caribbean that dwarfs whatever benefits Venezuela has provided in recent years. One would assume there would be some gratitude for that.
This is to say that the United States retains considerable leverage over a number of the countries that are failing to provide any convincing reason as to why the region must dawdle in the face of such disorder and government intransigence in Venezuela. One doesn’t need to wave the bloody shirt to concentrate the minds of some of these governments on the fact that there may be consequences for their actions. Quiet diplomacy behind closed doors and demonstrating the will to act could perhaps test the pain threshold of what to date has been cost-free obstruction of multilateral action on Venezuela.
That said, the United States should not place all its eggs in the multilateral basket. As I have argued elsewhere, that shouldn’t preclude aggressive, unilateral U.S. action to hold individual Venezuelan officials accountable for drug trafficking, human rights abuses, and corruption.
Already, the Trump administration has demonstrated the will to act to defend U.S. interests in Venezuela, sanctioning its vice president for drug trafficking and eight Supreme Court justices for corruption. Moreover, according to a recent article in Politico, the administration is prepared to ramp up the application of sanctions as conditions continue to deteriorate in Venezuela.
A policy combining aggressive, multilateral diplomacy and targeted individual sanctions offers the best hope to pull Venezuela back from the abyss. Challenging the current government’s legitimacy both regionally and within Venezuela will increase pressure on those with the constitutional mandate to ensure internal order to decide which path will best extricate the country from its current crisis.
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