This morning’s call from the chief of the Organization of American States (OAS) for an emergency meeting to discuss the erosion of democracy in Venezuela signals that regional leaders are taking a tougher stance with the Caracas government. But to go beyond mere rhetoric, Brazil and Argentina must also step up.
Susana Malcorra and José Serra, the foreign ministers of Argentina and Brazil, respectively, could help put together a coalition of the at least two-thirds of OAS members needed to suspend Venezuela until President Nicolás Maduro’s government restores judicial independence and the protection of fundamental rights. The foreign ministers also have the power to convince Uruguay to support Venezuela’s suspension from the Mercosur bloc of South American nations.
The situation is increasingly critical. Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest proven energy reserves, has turned into the world’s worst performing economy, facing a horrific combination of rising authoritarianism, extreme political polarization, exploding levels of violence and a public health emergency due to a lack of basic medicine. After a 5.7 percent contraction in 2015, Venezuela’s economy is expected to shrink 8 percent this year and 4.5 percent in 2017. Highly active in many international institutions until recently, Venezuela is now slowly losing the financial muscle to sustain its diplomatic activism.
Venezuela’s internal chaos − which is becoming a humanitarian crisis − poses the most severe challenge to regional actors in years. As President Maduro has debilitated the opposition-dominated National Assembly, imprisoned leading opposition figures and ended the independence of the judiciary, a democratic solution to the crisis is ever more remote, and Venezuela seems increasingly unable to overcome its internal divisions alone. While Venezuelans have overwhelmingly called for a recall referendum, the regime is likely to delay the vote until 2017, when Maduro would be more than four years into his six-year term and the vice-president would assume the presidency in the event Maduro is recalled.
Brazil and Argentina have clear reason to step in. Venezuela’s crisis damages the region’s reputation and encourages the notion that South America is adrift and incapable of solving its own problems. In addition, other governments will look for cues from Buenos Aires and Brasília as they make up their minds on how to vote.
More importantly, both Brazil and Argentina have a moral obligation to help, after their previous governments actively promoted economic cooperation with Caracas during a period when Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez worked to dismantle Venezuela’s democracy. Without diplomatic support and economic engagement from Buenos Aires and Brasília over the past decade (which generated ample economic rewards for Brazil and subsidized oil for Argentina), chavismo could not have prospered in such an unrestrained manner. That’s something Venezuela’s opposition, bound to take over at some point, is unlikely to forget.
Regional intervention would not be unprecedented. In 1995, after a short war between Peru and Ecuador, Brazil successfully led mediation efforts to resolve the decades-old dispute. In the following years, Brazil, along with Mercosur, several times intervened diplomatically in Paraguay to avoid coups and instability. In 2002, Venezuela’s neighbors cobbled together a regional grouping, called “Friends of Venezuela,” to reduce tensions after a failed coup attempt against Chávez.
But regional leadership is currently in short supply. All of Latin America is feeling a hangover from the commodity bust, which has lead to low growth, high public debt and voter discontent. The situation has fueled political turmoil in Brazil, which is currently overseen by a scandal-prone interim government that lacks, in the eyes of its neighbors, the legitimacy to take the lead on Venezuela, creating a regional power vacuum. This multitude of internal challenges partly explains why the region’s response to the crisis in Venezuela has been insufficient.
It is telling that, after years of failed mediation efforts, it took Paraguay, one of the region’s smallest countries, to request a meeting of Mercosur foreign ministers to address the situation in Venezuela. Parallel to Mercosur, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro this morning invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter and requested an urgent meeting of the OAS permanent council between June 10 and 20 to discuss whether Maduro’s government has breached democratic rules, which could lead to the country’s suspension from the group.
Both Paraguay and the OAS should be lauded for ending years of shameful inaction across the board. Indeed, the fact that Paraguay suffered suspension from Mercosur in 2012 after the impeachment of Fernando Lugo (which Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay considered a coup) provides the government with additional legitimacy today to criticize the bloc’s stance on Venezuela.
I recently visited Asunción and heard frustration from several Paraguayan policymakers and analysts that Brazil and Argentina are today silent in the face of Venezuela’s massive violations of democratic governance, while they were swift to punish Paraguay for an ambiguous and not as clear-cut situation four years ago.
“We all know we were suspended for geopolitical considerations, to allow Venezuela to join Mercosur,” one said, referring to how Paraguay’s Senate in 2009 refused to approve Venezuela’s accession to Mercosur.
It is far from clear whether Mercosur can unify to suspend Venezuela, or whether two-thirds of the 34 countries in the OAS are willing to support invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter and suspend Venezuela from the hemispheric body. Venezuela still provides subsidized oil to at least 10 countries in the Caribbean and retains traditional allies in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Yet even a failed attempt to condemn Venezuela via the OAS or Mercosur would likely increase the pressure on the government in Caracas to allow the legislature and the judiciary to carry out its work.
This would not be an undue interference in the country’s internal affairs, nor would it be a signal that regional actors are biased toward the opposition. Rather, it would be a defense of Venezuelans’ rights to choose their leaders – and a sign that the region is capable of using the legal instruments that have been arduously established over the past two and a half decades to preserve democratic rule.
Stuenkel is a contributing columnist for Americas Quarterly and teaches International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. He is the author of The BRICS and the Future of Global Order (2015) and the forthcoming Post-Western World (2016).