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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 11 New Delhi March 3, 2018

Venezuela Lurches into Further Crisis: OAS Fails to Consensually Assist The Country

Monday 5 March 2018

by Gautam Sen

The Venezuelan Government, headed by President Nicolas Maduro, has been contending with a severe political and economic crisis practically for the past nearly two years. There is a huge continuing tussle between the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) regime of President Maduro, which assumed power in April 2013 in the aftermath of the popular Bolivarian leader, Hugo Chavez’s death earlier that year, and the Opposition political parties grouped into United Democratic Round-table—presently in control of the country’s parliament. The challenge to Maduro was initiated in May 2016 with the combined Opposition moving a presidential recall petition before Venezuela’s National Electoral Council for repressive government policies, economic failure and partisan behaviour.The Venezuelan military has, however, been standing by the Maduro Government, though some stray instances of rebellious sentiments in its middle and lower echelons have been noticed.

The country is virtually split down the middle with huge demonstrations occurring in support of the Opposition and frequent strident and violent public demonstrations demanding the resignation of President Maduro and new presidential elections. The PSUV has also brought its cadres on the streets and public spaces in support of the Leftist regime of Maduro. President Maduro, still enjoying nearly 27 per cent support among the Venezuelans even as per the anti-government pollster, Dataanalyses, has also taken recourse to countervailing action by setting up a new Constituent Assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s Constitution, through an acrimonious election process in July 2017 in a vitiated political environment in which free and fair voting does not seem to have been feasible.

The ostensible reason for setting up a new Constituent Assembly is to re-define the present jurisdiction of the National Assembly to deliberate on the executive decisions of the Maduro-led executive, question or thwart their implementation, and override the Assembly’s mandate. An invidious situation has arisen because the Venezuelan judiciary has taken positions against some of the decisions of the Opposition-controlled Assembly, while the Opposition is determined to incapacitate the Maduro Government in the matter of enacting legislation and obtaining revenue through legislative support. A huge conflictual situation has been prevailing wherein the executive, legislature and judiciary are working at cross purposes. The Venezuelan state and its polity are in peril. As a consequence of the civil strife and near-civil war conditions, the economy is seriously affected with a virtual 40 per cent deceleration, hyper-inflation of more than 2300 per cent in 2017 and the parity of the Venezuelan official currency, the Bolivar, vis-à-vis the US dollar falling by 10,769 per cent during the current regime. Shortage of essential commodities is evident throughout the country.

In this backdrop, the Organisation of American States (OAS), the regional grouping of 33 western hemispheric Latin American countries, seems to have adopted a meddlesome posture towards Venezuela, at the behest of the USA, some of the Right-wing regimes of South America and Venezuela’s Opposition parties. The situation has come to such a pass that political intervention under the OAS Charter was sought to be organised in Venezuela by the OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almegro, last year with the Venezuelan Government deciding, in mid-2017, to withdraw from the regional grouping. The moot point is that when the OAS could have offered its good offices or even played a constructive mediatory role to end the political confrontation between the Maduro regime and the Opposition, it has worked in a partisan manner. However, actual intervention has been thwarted because of the failure of Almegro, the USA, Canada and some of the Right-wing member-states to muster two-thirds majority of support within the OAS, as per its charter.

The OAS as a regional grouping has undoubtedly failed to function consensually in regard to the politico-economic turmoil and consequent fallout on the human rights situation of Venezuela. The multilateral grouping has also deviated from its charter which does not provide any scope for political or military intervention related to political contention or confrontation within a member-state. Article 15 of its charter is very clear in this regard. The interventionist approach of the OAS Secretary-General with the support of its 11 Latin American member-countries and Canada—known as the Lima Group, along with the USA, has also negated Articles 5 and 6 of the charter which enjoin on the Organisation and its members to respect the sovereignty and independence of its members and recognise their right to organise themselves in matters of governance as they deem fit.

In the context of the Venezuelan crisis getting more intractable, and sharp differences within the OAS vis-à-vis Venezuela, there seems no alternative to the Venezuelans themselves taking charge of the situation. However, this may not be easily achievable so long as Maduro is the President and the country‘s military remains a prop to the ruling regime. Maduro has already expressed his intention to contest for the presidency later this year. Maduro‘s continuance is likely to deepen the all-round division in Venezuelan polity and society. Civil society is also fragmented as a consequence of the political contention and also conflictual diverse socio-economic interests, which have only been exacerbated with the downturn in the economy and other factors like a large number of educated and employable youngsters leaving the country, and flight of capital from the consumer goods and infrastructural sectors.

To compound the situation, the USA has imposed economic sanctions selectively on a Venezuelan Minister, a military commander and two pro-Maduro provincial Governors apart from freezing the country‘s economic assets in the USA and imposing embargo on arms supplies to that country. Maduro has now decided to introduce a crypto-currency, the Petro, and initially release this currency equivalent to US $ 100 million, backed by Venezuela‘s oil and gas reserves and gold and diamond deposits, to circumvent the existing international financial ecosystem wherein the sanctions have affected the country‘s liquidity and foreign earnings. Whether the Petro option is legal within Venezuela‘s financial laws, and will work, are issues which loom large on the horizon.

The activities of the Venezuelan Opposition has also not been above board and conducive for national reconciliation. The Opposition has persistently tried to invoke external support, particularly from the USA and the Right-wing Latin American regimes in countries like Brazil, Peru and Argentina, and even attempted to set up a parallel Supreme Court on US territory. While there have been allegations against the Maduro regime of money laundering and drug trafficking, the Opposition has also been accused of obtaining illicit funds, for example, from the Brazilian conglomerate, Odebrecht. The OAS should have discouraged such activities and honestly tried to broker an understanding between Maduro and the Opposition, and somehow maintain political neutrality and serve as an instrument for reconciliation, consoli-dation of the Venezuelan state and alleviating its economic problems.

The Right-wing Latin American govern-ments, the USA and Canada have failed to corner the Maduro regime within the OAS, for example, to decide on sanctions, intervention in Venezuela towards positioning external monitors, deputing fact-finding missions on civil disturbances and casualties, entering into dialogue within Venezuela on internal adminis-trative processes, etc. owing to lack of requisite majority in the Organisation. This may be considered a redeeming outcome because, the option to eventually bring to bear the combined resources and effort of the OAS towards ameliorating the political and economic conditions in Venezuela in an even-handed non-controversial manner, is therefore not foreclosed as yet. The OAS can still adopt a sagacious approach with mature counsel from external leaders like, say, the UN Secretary General or Pope Francis and the Vatican which, incidentally, wields considerable ecclesiastical sway over the Venezuelan people by virtue of their Catholic religious persuasion and the pontiff‘s Latin American background. It will be of essence if the OAS desists from any further action not acceptable to the contesting parties in the country and adopts a withdrawn posture in respect of Venezuela.

While the partisan approach of the OAS needs no emphasis, some its member-states can still work towards promoting a political settlement in Venezuela. Such a role can be exercised by the Francophone and Anglo-Saxon countries within the OAS, since these have also been traditionally less hostile towards Chavez and his successor. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) of 33 member-countries (the CELAC is a de-facto counter-grouping to the OAS with the USA excluded)—most of whom are also members of the OAS, have been active recently towards initiating some dialogue between the Maduro Government and the Opposition outside Venezuela. Though these have not been conclusive, a channel has been opened. Herein lies some hope for a positive outcome towards lessening domestic confrontation within Venezuela. The OAS could have a role for organising an economic revival package for the benefit of the Venezuelan people while downplaying the earlier interventionist postures.

However, a lot will depend on whether the ruling PUSV reassigns a role other than as President for Maduro, and most importantly, the Trump Administration in USA adopts a less hostile approach to Venezuela covering the entire range of its interests towards Latin America.

The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior appointments with Government of India and a State Government. The views expressed here are the author‘s own.

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