Venezuela on the brink

Luis Amalgro's hostility toward Venezuela's president won't help the OAS mediate in Caracas
OAS Secretary General Luis Amalgro's undisguised hostility toward Venezuela's president undermines his organization's ability to act as a mediator (source: dpa)

How long can you hang on the edge of an abyss without falling in? That’s the question being asked about Venezuela. People are dying in the hospitals because of shortages of medicines and bandages. The annual inflation rate has reached 700 percent. The country is in debt to the tune of $170 billion, $7 billion of which is due by the end of the year. With oil at $50 per barrel, there is little cash in the treasury to cover that payment and none to pay for imports needed to relieve the excruciating goods shortages. Chiefly suffering are the poor, whose welfare the Socialist government claims to make its principal objective.

Venezuela’s opposition now has a majority in the legislature and is pushing for a recall referendum to oust President Nicolas Maduro. In response, Mr. Maduro has declared a state of emergency, distributed arms to civilian vigilante groups and brought troops out onto the streets to block opposition protests. The ruling Chavistas are meanwhile using every trick in the book to stall the recall referendum, closing the only constitutional route to a change in government.

The details of this crisis have been described in a GIS special report by Dr. John Polga-Hecimovich, who outlines several possible scenarios, none of them optimistic. At every turn the government is growing more authoritarian, the shortages are getting more acute and daily life for Venezuelans is becoming more and more unbearable. The probability of violent protests and bloodshed increases each day.

What is to be done? With domestic forces at an impasse, an outside moderator seeking some form of compromise is the best solution. Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, has invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter and summoned member countries to discuss “alteration of the constitutional regime” in Venezuela.

The OAS labors under a legacy of U.S. domination. That makes it easy for Venezuela to dismiss any pressure as intervention in disguise

But the OAS is the wrong intermediary to end the Venezuelan standoff. Firstly, Mr. Almagro has not concealed his hostility toward Mr. Maduro, which undermines his credibility as an honest broker. More important, the OAS labors under a heavy legacy of domination by the United States. That makes it easy for Venezuela’s government to dismiss any pressure from the OAS as U.S. intervention in disguise – an opinion that could be shared by many member countries.

A better go-between – indeed, the only viable one – would be the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The crisis in Venezuela is a perfect opportunity for South America’s leaders to protect democratic governance and define their regional identity. With new governments in Brazil and Argentina demonstrating a willingness to act, Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz, an experienced diplomat and outspoken defender of democracy, could join his colleagues in UNASUR in bringing the two sides in Venezuela to the negotiating table. Without an international effort to broker a compromise in that country, the outlook is for more suffering and a growing likelihood of bloodshed.

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