Can Latin America’s leaders restore peace in Venezuela?
Nicolas Maduro, the President of Venezuela, may have gone past the tipping point in provoking serious opposition from his neighbours in Latin America, writes Dr Joseph S. Tulchin.
And, that does not include tensions with the United States government.
In the last month, the Maduro government denied access to Venezuela to three former presidents – Felipe Calderon of Mexico, Andres Pastrana of Colombia and Sebastian Pinera from Chile, and refused permission to leave the country to the most prominent voice of the democratic left in Venezuela, Teodoro Petcoff. He wanted to travel to Spain to accept the prestigious Ortega y Gasset journalism award.
Other former presidents - Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Alejandro Toledo of Peru, Jorge Quiroga of Bolivia, and Ricardo Lagos of Chile - have expressed their dissatisfaction at the Maduro government’s authoritarian behaviour in the media.
The government’s behaviour represents a major challenge for Latin American countries which, in their attempts to get beyond the heavy legacy of US hegemony, have spent time and energy creating several regional organisations to express their new common identity. The organisations provide a forum on common interests and express a common view in international affairs.
Together, they are known as the New Regionalism in Latin America to distinguish them from the Organisation of American States (OAS) which includes the US - and many believe is dominated by it. The challenge is that, except for ALBA - the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas - the New Regionalism has made democracy and democratic governance its core value.
The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) sent a mission to Venezuela in 2014, to restore peace and seek a solution to the stand-off between the government and the opposition. It was attempting to express the new identity of the Latin American community by seeking a peaceful, democratic solution to the crisis.
It has since attempted repeatedly to renew its mission without much success.
Then the US announced in 2015 that it was sanctioning seven officials for violating citizens’ human rights. Predictably, the majority of Latin American leaders denounced the sanctions, the US, and rallied around Venezuela’s government.
Since then, the economic and social situation in Venezuela has worsened with the continued depression in the international price of petroleum. Its state oil company, PDVSA, cannot turn over enough revenue to the government at US$60 a barrel, to sustain any of the social programmes which allow for social peace and for the government to continue its progressive rhetoric.
Worse, the lack of revenue has made the government adopt an opaque three-tiered exchange system which makes importing goods difficult leading to recurring shortages of basic goods.
The government is growing increasingly desperate - and increasingly authoritarian.
So, can the new regional organisations play a role in restoring social peace and political dialogue in Venezuela?
To do so will require more leadership and more energy than any in the Latin American community appears willing to expend. Top candidates for the role of community leader were Chile’s President Michele Bachelet and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff. Both are swamped by domestic problems and unlikely to turn their attention to Venezuela.
This is a chance for Latin American leadership, but I am not optimistic that the community is prepared to assume such a role at this time.