In 2013, Venezuela was a defective democracy experiencing serious breaches of civil and political rights, but with more or less functioning electoral institutions, and accountability between the branches of the state. Today, the country is an authoritarian regime. President Nicolás Maduro’s government crossed into that territory on March 29 this year, when the Supreme Court, following instructions from the executive, stripped the country’s National Assembly of its competences, triggering the wave of demonstrations that continues today (42 a day on average) and that has cost the life of 126 Venezuelans. Another definitive step occurred on July 16, with the election, through massive electoral fraud, of a Constituent Assembly with total powers over the National Assembly and aimed at rewriting the national constitution.
There are two main victims of the Venezuelan crisis. The first are the Venezuelan people, who have not only witnessed a dramatic deterioration of their living conditions, but have also lost the ability to live together in harmony, for an undetermined amount of time. The second victim, on which I focus here, is multilateralism—the ability of states to bring collective solutions to conflicts and crises through institutions and other forms of cooperation.
The Venezuelan democratic crisis has been a test for existing multilateral mechanisms in the Americas. Certainly, this is a complex crisis that affects a major country and with numerous political, economic, and humanitarian considerations entangled. Yet it is futile to blame the crisis for the shortcomings of multilateral instruments; at the end of the day, were these mechanisms not designed precisely to solve complex crises? I argue that three factors have put multilateralism in peril: the paralysis of the Organization of American States (OAS), the overlap of sub-regional multilateral forums, and the effect of unilateralism long practiced by the United States in response to regional challenges.
The OAS: Paralyzed by Diverging Political Cultures
The OAS is the focal institution of the “inter-American system.” Thus, it stands as the major multilateral forum for solving political crises in the countries of the Americas. In relation to Venezuela, however, it only activated its Inter-American Democratic Charter in mid-2016, even though the crisis had arguably already become serious by 2014. This activation was also only due to the proactive action of Secretary General Luís Almagro, exercising the full extent of his competences.
A year later, however, the organization has failed to come up with a collective action plan for Venezuela. This past June 19, the General Assembly did not reach the two-thirds majority necessary to pass a resolution on the country’s crisis, as, at the last minute, three Caribbean states withdrew their support.
There are different reasons to explain the OAS’s inability to deliver. The most prominent one is the existence of a group of countries that, owing to ideological orientations or economic dependencies, impede the organization from reaching the voting threshold. Additionally, one should not overlook cultural, historical, and political differences that sometimes translate into mistrust between Latin American and Caribbean delegations. In the medium term, more effort will need to be made at the OAS to build bridges between its several different political cultures. A third factor behind inaction lies in the decision of the secretary general to support the Venezuelan opposition and rule out mediation, based on Maduro’s obstinacy and bad faith. This could have been a mistake, since it can be argued that, no matter how odious the interlocutor might be, international actors should never close the door on negotiation.
Sub-Regional Organizations: Forum Shopping and Erosion of Legitimacy
In the past few decades, new sub-regional organizations have been created in Latin America, developing a political mandate that resembles that of the OAS. The various drivers behind these overlapping regional organizations include a genuine attempt to create spaces for political deliberation among like-minded and geographically proximate countries, and an attempt by some states to wield regional leadership.
To be sure, one of the main reasons for the emergence of sub-regional organizations also lies in the creation of alternative forums to the OAS for cases of political crises. In fact, Maduro has masterly shopped for the most serviceable forum for his aims throughout the crisis, often playing regional organizations against each other. As a consequence, all regional organizations, but particularly the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), have seen their already fragile legitimacy further undermined.
In 2013 Maduro chose UNASUR as the legitimate mediator in his country’s political challenges, keeping OAS out of the game. UNASUR’s good offices arguably contributed to maintaining dialogue between the opposition and the government for a couple of years, preventing the levels of violence being witnessed today. However, the organization failed to convince that, despite being “chosen” by Maduro as the legitimate mediator, it could provide an independent and impartial forum. By 2015, UNASUR came to be perceived by most international observers as a smoke-screen of the regime and is now paralyzed, without an appointed secretary general. Similarly, on May 2, Maduro turned to CELAC, convening a meeting of the group in order to avoid a potential OAS suspension of his country. Even though this failed because of the absence of some states (CELAC works by consensus), its credibility was impaired.
With the advantage of its smaller number of member states, the trade-focused Mercosur has been the only organization able to take concerted actions against Venezuela. In December 2016 it temporarily suspended the country because of non-compliance with its internal rules. In April 2017, Mercosur invoked its democracy clause against Venezuela, and eventually in August 2017, again suspended the country because of the rupture of the democratic order. The suspension of a problematic member state cannot be seen as a victory of multilateralism, but at least shows the commitment of Mercosur’s member states to follow procedures and coordinate a common action, and thus raising the international pressure on Maduro’s regime.
The Venezuelan crisis has demonstrated the need to manage the fragmented and overlapping organizations of the Americas to avoid future “forum shopping.” The experience of comparable organizations in Africa and Europe shows that this could be achieved either by introducing a principle of subsidiarity—i.e. sub-regional organizations as first movers against member states, and the OAS acting as the mechanism of last resort—or a principle of primacy—i.e. the OAS as the first mover, and sub-regional organizations as supporters.
The United States: When Unilateralism Trumps Multilateralism
When it comes to regional politics, the US is more than an individual member of the OAS. It is a global and hemispheric power. And, as any US diplomat who has worked in hemispheric affairs can testify, the country carries the heavy baggage of more than a century of interventions in the domestic affairs of Latin American and Caribbean countries. To avoid further accusations of imperialism, the US role in protecting democracy in the Americas must therefore come from within the OAS and its multilateral mechanisms.
Each time that the US fails to act in this manner, its actions are invariably seen as signals of cooption of multilateralism, or simply interventionism. Criticism of the US interventionism has been a recurrent argument among Latin American elites for refraining from collective action in Venezuela.
Latin America’s left and center-left have gone through a slow and bumpy process to reach the position that it is crucial for the region in general, and for their own political fate in particular, to confront Maduro’s regime and activate multilateral mechanisms for democracy protection. But any unilateral action by the US invariably derails this process. This was seen, for example, in March 2015, when the Obama administration applied targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials, and March 2017, when US Senator Marco Rubio threated Haiti, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic with possible cuts in US aid if they did not support sanctions against Venezuela.
American actions have fueled Maduro’s claim to be the victim of US imperialism, and made life harder for those striving for effective multilateral engagement in Venezuela. The most recent illustration was seen in President Donald Trump’s threat of employing a military option for Venezuela on August 11. The declaration threw a life-jacket of legitimacy to a drowning Maduro, who once again claimed to be the defender of Venezuelan sovereignty.
Bringing Multilateralism Back In
As the Uruguayan Foreign Minister Eduardo Rodríguez Larreta argued more than 70 years ago, the multilateral defense of democracy is fundamental not only for the sake of democracy protection itself, but also for removing the unilateral option from the repertoire of possible actions. Multilateralism during the three-year Venezuelan crisis has not yet been an outright failure. Various instruments have been invoked and, as in the case of Mercosur, enforced, resulting in the near complete international delegitimization of the Venezuelan regime. More importantly, an intense process of deliberation, arguing, and persuasion has taken place not only at the diplomatic level, but also at the level of the citizens in all Latin American societies. Citizens, intellectuals (from the left and right), political candidates, and others, have engaged in a public conversation about what is occurring in Venezuela, which has no doubt enriched the public debate about what democracy is and why it should be defended across the region.
The Declaration of Lima signed by 12 ministers of foreign affairs from the Americas on August 8 crystallizes this process. Four points are worth noting: First, it emphatically condemns the rupture of democracy in Venezuela; second, it supports the branches of the state under assault by the executive; it therefore locates its support at the level of institutions and not the domestic opposition to Maduro; third, it emphatically supports the multilateral instruments already being implemented toward Venezuela—the democracy clause of Mercosur and the Inter-American Democratic Charter of OAS; fourth, it keeps open the possibility of a mediation process in which all parties are willing to negotiate in good faith. This declaration could thus be the basis for a resolution at the level of the OAS and the United Nations General Assembly, curbing any US unilateral temptations, and bringing multilateralism back in.
Stefano Palestini is a Chilean political scientist and sociologist. He researches the role of regional organizations in democracy promotion and development at the Free University of Berlin.