Latin American observers are calling on regional democracies to address the ongoing unrest in Venezuela and take steps to defend democratic norms and human rights.
The Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council, composed of representatives from all 35 countries in the Americas, scheduled a closed meeting on Thursday in Washington, D.C., at the request of Panama to discuss the Venezuelan crisis. At least 18 people have died in protests against President Nicolas Maduro and the country’s rampant crime, inflation, and shortages.
Maduro attributed the announcement of the OAS meeting to “moves by the United States government in accord with a lackey government of a right-wing president” and reacted angrily by breaking off diplomatic and economic ties to Panama. The meeting was already postponed a week after pressure from the Venezuelan government.
Maduro warned the OAS and Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza not to “intervene in Venezuelan home affairs.”
Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and U.S. ambassador to the OAS in the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview that the OAS meeting is a “first snap” that is unlikely to yield any concrete actions from the body.
“At this current point the Venezuelan government can be expected to block any real involvement by the OAS—let alone intervention,” he said.
Noriega said about 10 core countries in the bloc would like to become more involved in Venezuela by sending an emissary to help mediate talks between Maduro and the opposition. However, Maduro’s obstinacy and internal dynamics at the OAS will likely prevent a swift response.
“These things play out over a period of months and years,” Noriega said. “After they’ve eliminated all the other alternatives they’ll do the right thing.”
Both the OAS and its members have been subject to withering criticism in recent weeks for not taking a tougher stance against Maduro’s crackdown on the opposition.
While countries such as Colombia have expressed concern about the situation and urged dialogue between the government and the protesters, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said last month that the country “is silent on the internal status of any [other] country.” Insulza has also stressed that the OAS “cannot intervene” without the Venezuelan government’s consent.
OAS representatives will get a sense on Thursday of whether countries such as Brazil will block any action on Venezuela or let others move on without them, Noriega said.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon that the OAS must seize the opportunity to condemn the state-abetted violence in Venezuela.
“It is an act of moral cowardice that as protesters in Venezuela began dying at the hands of government agents, the Organization of American States, along with many regional leaders, remained silent and unwilling to condemn the government of Venezuela for its violence and repression,” he said.
“The OAS must demand a thorough and independent investigation into allegations of human rights violations and the harassment of the independent press,” he added. “Moreover, I call on President Obama to impose similar actions against those undermining democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela as he announced this morning on the situation in Ukraine.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) is circulating a letter among lawmakers that urges Obama to impose sanctions on Maduro and Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses, including U.S. visa bans, asset freezes, and prohibitions on financial transactions.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time. A senior White House official previously told the Free Beacon that the administration has “had good communication with Congress on recent developments in Venezuela” and is focused “on encouraging the start of a meaningful dialogue between the Venezuelan government and its people.”
Critics accuse the OAS of caving to pressure from Venezuela and failing to uphold its mandate to “promote and defend” democracy and the rule of law, according to its Inter-American Democratic Charter. They also say members have intervened in countries before when it suited their interests.
Insulza, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party, has previously backed leftist leaders in Honduras and Paraguay who were ousted after generating widespread public discontent. Former Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya was removed from power in 2009 after proposing a referendum that would have included the elimination of presidential term limits.
Noriega said Insulza has “become a body guard for dictators” at times.
“He has zero credibility,” Noriega said. “[The OAS] will have to act without his leadership” on Venezuela.
Rousseff, a member of Brazil’s left-leaning Workers’ Party, also supported punitive actions against Honduras and Paraguay after they deposed their leaders.
Maduro and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have long used their country’s sizable oil and natural gas reserves to exert influence in the region. However, Venezuela’s overall production levels and exports have declined in the last decade.
Maduro has struggled to address soaring crime rates and a scarcity of more than one in four basic goods since he was elected in a contested election last April. The largely middle and upper class protests have begun to draw support in working class and poor neighborhoods, traditional strongholds for Maduro.