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With Its Silence on Venezuela, Some Question Purpose of OAS
The Washington Diplomat / December 2007

By Larry Luxner

Last May, the Organization of American States, meeting in "special session," adopted a document whose title alone is enough to scare any bureaucrat away: "Declaration on Strengthening Cooperation in the Fight Against Terrorism and the Impunity of its Perpetrators."

In typical OAS fashion, the declaration expressed its "vehement condemnation of terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, regardless of its origin or motivation, as criminal and unjustifiable, as a grave threat to international peace and security, and because it undermines efforts under way to promote stability, prosperity, and equity in the countries of the Hemisphere."

And on Oct. 15, the organization's secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, issued a solemn statement memorializing St. Lucia's late prime minister, John Compton, who died in September at the age of 82, as "a true and wise statesman, not only of St. Lucia and the Caribbean but of our shared hemisphere."

The OAS leader went on to note that "the passing of this great statesman opens the door for reflection on his legacy and a renewed commitment to fulfilling his desire for a unified Caribbean."

Yet the 35-member OAS hasn't said a word about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez is trying to force constitutional changes through the Supreme Court so that they can be considered by largely sympathetic voters in a referendum scheduled for Dec. 2. Among other things, the changes would abolish presidential term limits and give Chávez total control over Venezuela's Central Bank.

"The OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed in 2001, really has very few teeth," says critic Daniel P. Erikson, an analyst at Inter-American Dialogue. "Barring a military coup, it's not really very effective at dealing with this kind of authoritarian concentration of power. But the view that Chávez is an emerging dictator is still a Washington view. A lot of other countries in the region, including Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia, see Venezuela as being democratic. The OAS has a long-standing principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries."

Phil Peters, vice-president of the Arlington-based Lexington Institute, calls the OAS "a good organization that does a lot of positive work outside the spotlight," in areas such as trade, commercial relations, health care, counter-narcotics and peacekeeping efforts in Haiti.

"The OAS, like the United Nations, is very often scapegoated unfairly," he said. "It's easy to blame the organization when it doesn't produce the results you want. But the fact is, it's an international organization that operates by consensus, and it's not always going to do what each one of us want."

For example, he said, "in the area of democracy, the OAS sets standards but doesn't have the power to enforce actions against governments that violate those standards."

Peters notes that "for all his faults, Chávez was democratically elected. He also violates just about every democratic norm in the book. He's suppressed the opposition and squeezes the press, but does so in a way that's hard for the OAS to come down on him."

The OAS, which comprises several elegant buildings along Constitution Avenue, was formed in April 1948 by the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela. Another 14 states have subsequently joined, bringing total membership to 34.

In addition, 46 countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Yemen have permanent observer status at the OAS, as does the European Union.

More than a year ago, Inter-American Dialogue issued a 20-page report on the OAS, in which it detailed the organization's "shameful" budgetary constraints and internal squabbling — both of which have made it nearly impossible for the multilateral body to deal with the unfolding crisis in Venezuela.

Noting how the Washington-based body received intense criticism from both the Chávez government and the opposition after monitoring that country's 2006 presidential election, the report said the OAS "has been restrained by an array of factors — the extent of Chávez's popular support, his long series of electoral victories and the weakness of opposition groups."

Significantly, it added that "most OAS governments are reluctant to openly oppose Chávez, in some measure because their commercial relations with Venezuela are significant and Chávez is a popular figure in many countries."

In short, the report concluded, the OAS is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.

"To do nothing, to simply treat Venezuela as another democratic country, would underscore the shortcomings of the OAS and dthe limitations of its capacity to protect democracy. At the same time, OAS member states are unwilling to directly challenge the Venezuelan government. Even the secretary-general is largely hamstrung by this situation.

"Although it is unlikely to have any immediate impact, what the secretary-general can and should do is to make clear to Chávez and other Venezuelan officials that their country is violating basic norms of democratic governance and to consistently urge a change in course."

Yet that hasn't happened for a number of reasons.

"I think the OAS suffers a lot of the flaws you'd find in any multilateral institution," said Erikson. "It can be slow to act, overly bureaucratic and dependent on its most powerful members. In addition to that, it's constantly strapped for finances. That being said, I think Insulza [Chile's former foreign minister] has proven to be a capable leader mainly by using the bully pulpit. The organization still plays a crucial role in a hemisphere that's pretty divided."

Roberto Bottome might beg to differ.

"Insulza is an asshole, and you can quote me on that," said the publisher of VenEconomy Weekly,a business newsletter stridently opposed to the Chávez government. "I'm dismayed at his lack of willingness to speak out in defense of democratic values."

Bottome, speaking to the Diplomatby phone from Caracas, lashed out at the OAS for not following its own charter when it comes to the growing repression in Venezuela.

"The OAS has a democratic charter, and they know there have been violations of basic human freedoms, including freedom of speech. So why didn't they take a stand, even if it's just to deplore what's going on? To take an institutional stand I think is well within the scope of things the OAS could do, particularly Insulza. But they haven't done diddly. If you tell me what it was they did, then I will apologize."

A senior OAS official who declined to be identified for this article sympathized with Bottome's point of view.

"The Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed in Lima on Sept. 11, 2001, is an historic and unprecedented initiative. There's no other regional declaration of its kind in any part of the world," said the Washington-based official. "It sets the bar very high for the OAS, and at the same time, it sort of forces the secretary-general and the whole OAS administration to now enforce it."

The official added: "I think the organization will be judged by history, in large part, by the extent to which it defended or upheld the principles of this charter. Its lack of action in the specific case of Venezuela is very disturbing, because this sets a very negative precedent. It's not really standing up for those principles."

Insulza, who assumed leadership of the OAS in May 2005, couldn't be reached for comment for this article, though Bottome's verbal attack wouldn't be the first time he's been insulted by a Venezuelan.

Earlier this year, after the secretary-general warned that the Chávez government's closing of Radio Caracas Television, a large media outlet controlled by the opposition, could have a damaging effect on democracy in Venezuela, Chávez called him "an idiot, a true idiot." The president added that "Insulza is playing the role of viceroy for the empire" — a thinly veiled reference to the Bush administration.

Indeed, for most of its 59-year history, the policies of the OAS have largely reflected the policies of the United States, which has always been its largest benefactor.

From a financial point of view, that's still the case.

In fiscal 2007, the United States contributed $44.4 million, or 59.47% of the total OAS budget of $73.7 million. The second-biggest contributor was Canada, accounting for $9.3 million, or 13.76%, followed by Brazil, which donated $6.4 million (7.6% of the total).

The organization's five smallest members — Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Guyana, St. Kitts and St. Vincent — kicked in only $14,900 apiece, or only 0.024% of the total OAS budget.

Interestingly, Cuba contributed $925,700 this year (1.02% of the total OAS budget) even though it's been suspended from membership since 1962. Still, the Cuban flag flies in the entrance to OAS headquarters, because the island has not technically been removed — only "separated" — from membership "in the hope that, one day, Cuba will be able to meet the ideological standard and economic preference set by the regional body," according to a report issued by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

But that isn't likely to happen anytime soon, said the OAS official who declined to be identified.

"I don't believe it's up to the secretary-general to decide whether Cuba should be reinstated as a member," he said. "It's up to the Cuban government, and the deciding factor is whether Cuba will have a democratic form of government or not."

In the COHA report issued Oct. 19 and entitled "The Organization of American States: On its Deathbed?" analyst Sean Bartlett argues that the United States should, in essence, stop trying to control the OAS.

"Skepticism and marginalization have been prescribed by some of the OAS's more caustic critics, but better solutions may exist. Through a calculated step back to allow for the full participation of the other member nations, the U.S. can help create the space for a creative future for the OAS to better deal with its ailment deriving from bureaucratic wrangling over confusion of mission and purpose," he wrote.

Using the current crisis in Venezuela as an example, Bartlett also suggests that "representative democracy," as espoused by the United States, is not the only kind of democracy in the world.

"Many critics of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez see his insistence on a more participatory and broad-ended societal involvement by the average Venezuelan as evidence of a further move toward his goal of 21st-century socialism. But the argument for a more general approval of democracy as compraed with a specific endorsement of one genre over another may be gaining ground," he said. "The OAS would be well-advised to reconsider the rigidity with which it subscribes to an exclusive endorsement of representative democracy as part of its checklist to achieving good health."

Ultimately, says COHA, Insulza must conduct a balancing act between pleasing the United States and not forgetting the "social and solidarity needs of the most desperate" in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.

"While the cure may fall somewhere between Washington's overbearing attention at best and its sheer neglect at worst," said the report, "the organization must at least make a case that it deserves to exist, or be relegated to the history books so that the region can plan for its future."

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