The End of Latin American Solidarity
The region once acted as a bloc in world affairs. But as Costa Rica’s bid to join the U.N. Human Rights Council shows, Venezuela’s ongoing disintegration is ripping it apart.
This month, Costa Rica announced that it would be putting itself forward as one of three candidates from Latin America for one of two seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Brazil is up for reelection and Venezuela is up for election to the international human rights body in the Oct. 17 vote, and Costa Rica’s candidacy is intended to push out the autocratic Venezuelan regime. (Brazil’s reelection is assured.) It is no surprise that Costa Rica, the country that in the 1980s negotiated an end to several civil wars in Central America—earning then-President Óscar Arias a Nobel Peace Prize—would step forward as a defender of human rights internationally. What is surprising is that, in a region that has long prided itself on regional solidarity, the country is mounting a direct and explicit challenge to Venezuela.
In announcing the candidacy earlier this month, Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado tweeted that “Due to the serious violations against human rights … the Venezuelan regime is not the suitable candidate for the UN #HumanRights Council.” Costa Rica’s move to replace Venezuela on the UNHRC comes on the heels of a series of public rebukes of Venezuela’s record on democracy and human rights from around the region. Earlier this year, the Lima Group—the ad hoc coalition of democratically elected governments, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru—recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate elected interim president after he was sworn in as the head of the National Assembly in January. There were two notable exceptions, however. One was Mexico, under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who cited a prohibition in Mexico’s constitution on interfering in matters of national sovereignty (a prohibition that he didn’t seem to care much about when he called for international intervention in Mexico in 2006 after he said that the presidential elections had been stolen from him). The other was Uruguay, which has since participated in the International Contact Group, a European initiative that has implicitly recognized the illegitimacy of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s May 2018 reelection and called for negotiations for his exit.
In July this year, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, issued a blistering report on the dismal human rights situation in Venezuela. Bachelet, whose father died in custody under Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime, cited multiple cases of torture, arbitrary detention, violations of freedom of expression, and systematic repression of human rights and protests in Venezuela. The report stated that the government and pro-government militias have engaged in a policy “aimed at neutralizing, repressing and criminalizing political opponents and people critical of the Government.” The Maduro government condemned the report, and members of its paramilitary unit, the Special Action Forces, reportedly harassed local human rights groups that had provided information and support to the UNHRC team in country.
Venezuela has also been a proud supporter of human rights abusers on the UNHRC. As Global Americans, the nongovernmental organization I helped found, has documented, Venezuela has consistently voted against resolutions condemning human rights violations in Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Even so, Latin American governments voted overwhelmingly for Venezuela to join the human rights group in 2016, and in 2014 the region voted again as a bloc—as it often does for its hemispheric neighbors—to support Venezuela’s accession to the rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council. All of this despite growing concerns over the deterioration of democracy in Venezuela and mounting evidence of the government’s support for the FARC guerrilla group in Colombia and engagement in illicit trade, including narcotics and arms trafficking.
But recently, regional solidarity has started to crack as the Maduro government has maintained and even ramped up its repression and more than 4.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country’s humanitarian meltdown, many of them to neighboring countries. In a side meeting at the U.N. General Assembly last month, 18 foreign ministers from region invoked a 1947 collective action treaty, the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, or the Rio Treaty. The Rio Treaty commits members to act against an attack against one member as “an attack against all the American States.” In this case, though, the attack was against the Venezuelan people by the country’s own government. The 18 Latin American governments that endorsed the treaty both hoped to use it as an injunction against threatened U.S. military intervention in Venezuela and as an avenue to permit diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Maduro regime. So far, though, no government in the region has stepped up to impose the now officially sanctioned sanctions. Their reluctance stems from two reasons: their traditional squeamishness in punishing hemispheric partners—even diplomatically—and the absence of precedent and legislation that permit governments to freeze assets and block trade and investment.
All this has made Costa Rica’s unusual challenge to Venezuela’s seat on the UNHRC all the more important. The week before Alvarado announced his country’s candidacy to the council, the body agreed to create a group of experts to investigate human rights atrocities in Venezuela. Predictably, the Maduro government called the decision a hostile act—much as it has any effort by the international community to weigh in on the country’s exploding humanitarian crisis. The irony in this case, though, is that the Maduro government was denouncing the very body it aspired to be reelected to.
For Costa Rica, though, such dissension is par for the course. Its own mediation in the Central American wars came as the region was deeply divided and conflicted over the Reagan administration’s policy of working with and rewarding abusive governments in its effort to defeat Soviet Union and Cuban-supported guerrilla movements. This time, it comes as the United States took the controversial step of pulling out of the UNHRC in June last year, calling it a “cesspool of political bias.” At the time, critics denounced the move as handing over the body to the autocratic countries that had come to dominate it, including China, Russia, and Cuba. Similar to in the 1980s, in this case, the absence of the United States from multilateralism may have the unintended consequence of stiffening the spine of democratic, liberal governments eager to defend their principles even against one of their own. Let’s hope other Latin American governments heed Costa Rica’s call this week.