Since its founding in 1948, the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) has often served as a punching bag. The world’s oldest regional group, OAS has, alternately, been accused of serving as an instrument of U.S. hegemony, or of being ineffectual and paralyzed — unable to reach agreement among its 35 member states on issues ranging from defending human rights to advancing democratic principles to battling illicit drugs. It has been repeatedly criticized as an underfunded, poorly managed, and inadequately staffed institution. Five decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, dispensing with diplomatic niceties, said the OAS “couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.”
To be sure, the OAS has scored some major wins in pursuit of its chief purposes – defending democracy and protecting human rights. In 1979, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous body affiliated with the OAS, played an indispensable role in exposing the massive human rights violations committed during Argentina’s so-called “dirty war.” During the heady post-Cold War days of the 1990s, the OAS also took forceful stands to defend democracy in Haiti, Peru, Guatemala, and Paraguay.
In Defense of Democracy
Over the years, the organization developed an impressive framework for the collective defense of democracy, codified as the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The charter was signed in Lima, Peru on Sept. 11, 2001 – just hours after the terrorist attacks on the United States – by Secretary of State Colin Powell, along with the Western Hemisphere’s other foreign ministers. The charter, whose signatories included the two-year-old Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez, guarantees the right to democracy and obliges OAS member states to promote and defend it. To many, it seemed to mark a new golden age for the organization. But in the ensuing years, as the Venezuelan strongman took on a more aggressive role in hemispheric affairs, competing regional groups such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) were established – and the Americas became more polarized between antagonists and allies of the United States. The OAS was largely stalemated.
In 2016, however, has been a tumultuous and defining year. Today, the body faces two crucial tests. The first is whether OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who took office in May of 2015, can convince the Western Hemisphere to take some serious action in Venezuela to stem the country’s economic collapse and democratic decline. Though the prospects so far look fairly grim, many still hope that his efforts will eventually bear fruit. The second test – less politically charged but nonetheless key – involves the financial crisis facing the already overstretched Commission on Human Rights, widely regarded as among the best-performing parts of the inter-American system. These two tests are distinct but related. Both will show just how committed member governments are to the organization’s raison d’être.
The Crisis in Venezuela
Almagro, a Uruguayan diplomat who recently served as his country’s foreign minister, has seized center stage this year – and stands virtually alone – in an effort to increase the pressure on countries in the region to confront the dramatic and disturbing erosion of democratic safeguards and the spreading humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. He believes that excessive deference to the views of member governments is a recipe for inaction, and that the OAS cannot justify standing by as Venezuela teeters on the brink of collapse.
In August, Almagro penned an eight-page open letter to imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López, declaring that his detention marked the end of democracy in Venezuela. “Clearly in Venezuela today there is no fundamental freedom and no civil or political rights,” he wrote, adding that “[t]hose of us who have suffered at the hands of dictators know that trying to eliminate opposition or dissident voices is a true reflection of the ignorance of tyrants.” Previously, on May 30, Almagro released a 114-page report detailing grounds for OAS’s member governments, which make up the Permanent Council, to invoke Article 20 of the Democratic Charter. This provision refers to an “alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order” — in effect, a serious breach of democracy.
His efforts, at least so far and on the surface, have yielded little progress. He failed to secure an 18-vote majority of OAS members to activate the charter, the first step in a process of diplomatic initiatives that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the body (as was the case after the Honduras coup in 2009). Still, the real tests may be to come. As the situation grows more severe, the other countries of the hemisphere will be forced to react, either within or outside multilateral organizations.
To his credit, Almagro has already opened up space at the OAS for addressing the situation in Venezuela. In his support of López, his strongly worded letters to the head of Venezuela’s electoral council, and in letters and tweets directed to Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, he has been notably outspoken. Almagro’s indictments center on Venezuela’s dozens of political prisoners and on Maduro’s determination to use the courts to block all measures backed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, including granting amnesty for those prisoners.
Almagro also supports the Venezuelan opposition’s struggle to use the recall referendum provision in the country’s constitution to unseat Maduro. On this issue, at least, the OAS has gained some traction. On August 11, fifteen members of the organization—including the seven largest countries in the hemisphere (the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Canada, and Peru)—signed a letter calling for the referendum to “be pursued clearly, concretely and without delay.” If a vote occurs before January 2017 and the number of votes in favor of recalling Maduro is higher than the number he received when he won the presidency in 2013, the country is obliged to hold new presidential elections.
To date, however, the government has refused to budge on questions of political prisoners and new elections. By manipulating the courts and the National Electoral Council, Maduro has made it clear that he will not allow the referendum to go forward this year, thus rejecting one of Almagro’s — and the opposition’s — key demands.
Without Almagro’s tenacious stand, it is doubtful that the OAS would have adopted a resolution on June 1 essentially calling for dialogue between the government and opposition. In the resolution, the OAS backed an initiative spearheaded by UNASUR and led by the former presidents of Spain, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, to mediate the conflict. This notably light resolution, devoid of any concrete provisions, if anything exalted the principle of non-intervention. Nonetheless, it put the Venezuela question on the OAS agenda.
Feeling the Heat
But in turning up the heat on Maduro, Almagro faces considerable resistance. Some ambassadors to OAS, despite their deep concerns for Venezuela, are uncomfortable with Almagro’s war of words with Maduro, who has in turn accused the secretary general of being a CIA agent and “traitor.” Almagro, in response, has said he considers Maduro to be a “petty dictator.” He has also called Maduro a “traitor to ethics in politics with [his] lies,” and accused him of betraying “the most sacred principle in politics, which is to subject [himself] to the scrutiny” of Venezuelans. Almagro sees this escalation as the only way to move things forward.
No one doubts Almagro’s convictions, but his lone-ranger style bewilders other regional diplomats. Some worry that he may eventually set his sights on their governments, as Latin American diplomats have told me. Even the United States, which has tacitly backed his efforts, has expressed some hesitation. At the OAS meeting in the Dominican Republic in June, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that while Washington supports Almagro’s efforts to “open a much-needed discussion about Venezuela,” it did not back an attempt to suspend the country from the OAS. Doing so could be counterproductive, he added.
Despite the region’s evolving political landscape and the decline of the anti-U.S. bloc once led by Chávez, it will be difficult to muster meaningful collective action on Venezuela. Maduro’s diplomatic skills — which he has employed over the past few years to neutralize criticism from Colombia, sustain support in the Caribbean, and gain endorsements from Brazil — should not be underestimated. A number of energy-poor Caribbean nations such as Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines remain grateful to Caracas for its assistance with substantial subsidies when oil prices were high and they were in dire straits. Even the new, more conservative Argentine government of Mauricio Macri, which came to office last December with strong words against Venezuela, appears to be accommodating Maduro by toning down the rhetoric and joining the chorus for dialogue. Some speculate that Susana Malcorra, the Argentine foreign minister and a candidate to be the next U.N. secretary general, wants to be careful not to antagonize Venezuela.
Brazil’s current center-right government, led by Michel Temer, is also loath to take a strong stand on Venezuela. To be sure, Brazilian foreign minister José Serra has led an effort to block Venezuela’s turn at the rotating pro tempore presidency of the Mercosur trade bloc for failing to meet membership requirements. Beyond that, however, Latin America’s largest country has yet been reluctant to confront Venezuela. With ever-widening corruption scandals that have now ensnared him and having recently concluded a controversial impeachment process, Temer’s government is on shaky ground and faces serious questions about its legitimacy. Colombia, meanwhile, cannot afford to irritate Maduro as its peace process with the FARC rebels is finalized.
Finances and the Human Rights Commission
As this drama has unfolded, another issue threatens one of the pillars of the inter-American system. OAS member governments have also been largely indifferent to the dire financial straits of the organization’s human rights commission. The problem is part of the OAS’s severe financial difficulties overall. The commission, already extremely backlogged with the high volume of cases, accounts for a mere 6 percent of OAS’s annual $85 million budget. The bulk of the commission’s annual budget — less than $5 million — comes not from the core budget derived from annual dues but from a fund supported by donations from member states (principally the United States) and non-member states. Contributions have fallen dramatically, which, according to the OAS, will lead to a staff reduction of some 40 percent.
Part of the explanation for the commission’s financial crisis is that some funds from Scandinavian governments have been redirected to deal with Europe’s refugee crisis. But the underlying, long-term cause is that member governments are failing to meet their responsibility to sustain a commission that acts independently and seeks to ensure transparency and accountability. For a number of governments, bolstering a genuinely autonomous body that would enhance scrutiny of their human rights records is hardly a high priority. Human Rights Watch has, for example, accused the Mexican government of trying to use the financial crisis to undercut the commission after its experts refuted the official account of the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero state in 2014. Other governments, such as Ecuador and Venezuela, have charged the commission with political bias and double standards. Although most member governments do not want the commission to disappear entirely, they do not seem to want it to be terribly robust, either.
The Need for American Leadership
Given the urgency of the situation and how much is at stake, different options are under consideration to help rescue the commission. The United States may well provide more funding, despite concerns from some U.S. officials, member governments, and civil society groups alike, about the political exposure that even greater dependence on Washington would bring. Some governments, such as Chile, Panama, and Argentina, appear prepared to increase their contributions, but probably not by enough to plug the gap and put the OAS’s flagship human rights body on sound financial footing.
This has been a tumultuous year for the organization, and many have lauded its renewed visibility. But the OAS faces crucial challenges. Both the financial problems of the commission and the profoundly troubling case of Venezuela will take the measure of the OAS in meeting its commonly professed aspirations — protecting human rights and democracy. Should it fail these tests, LBJ may be proved correct.
Michael Shifter is President of the Inter-American Dialogue.