THE Organization of American States is now in its 70th year. An organisation long and naturally dominated by the United States, the OAS has been criticised for that and for other things. But whether they are speaking from the core of their conscience or playing to the TV cameras for points with viewers back home, Western Hemisphere heads of government and foreign ministers often make news when attending an OAS meeting.
The 48th OAS general assembly meeting was no exception. It was held earlier this month in Washington, DC, in the stately and elegant headquarters building just down the street from the Washington Monument. George Washington’s bust is featured along an ornate balcony decorating the Hall of Nations, along with commemorations of numerous other hemispheric and national heroes.
Prior to the first session of the assembly, over 100 demonstrators waved flags and placards outside the meeting venue and chanted in protest against the actions of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. Many carried simple white wooden crosses bearing the name of one of the numerous recent reported victims of Ortega’s increasingly militaristic regime. A few protesting the regime of Bolivian president Evo Morales waved flags in a neighbouring, smaller demonstration.
Inside the meeting hall, though, foreign ministers took to microphones and verbal sparring ensured in a predictably sharp edged debate over the big issue of this and many other days in this hemisphere: Venezuela. As the crisis in that country deepens and reports of insufficient food, water and medicine proliferate in the news, the outflow of refugees threatens to drag many more neighbouring countries into the regional emergency.
Venezuela has now been ruled for 30 years by Hugo Chavez and, since 2013, by Chavez’ former foreign minister Nicolas Maduro. The oil rich Caribbean nation has not prospered under their leadership. While both Chavez and Maduro gained some admirers with their defiance of the United States and chummy relations with Castro’s Cuba and Morales’ Bolivia, their policies have despoiled what should be a vibrant economy. Political repression has constituted their response to resulting public restiveness.
As the OAS general assembly convened, a front-page Washington Post story detailed the accelerating “brain drain” from Venezuela, as those with marketable skills leave the country in droves. And during the general assembly’s early plenary sessions, it did not take long for debate battle lines to be drawn. Costa Rican foreign minister Epsy Campbell took the microphone first, decrying both the “unfair, irregular and undemocratic” recent election in Venezuela and the rising death toll in Nicaraguan political strife.
Campbell, proudly describing herself as the first woman and first person of African heritage to serve in her current post, carried on as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo entered the hall trailed by a coterie of aides.
As Pompeo was settling himself and Campbell concluded her remarks, Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Areaza spoke on a procedural point in rebuttal. Noting Pompeo’s arrival, Areaza noted acidly that Venezuela “seemed to have become the main topic of this conference,” and criticised the OAS as “a corporation created to attack (Venezuela).” But he cited Articles 19 and 20 of the OAS charter forbidding outside interference in the affairs of sovereign members.
The American secretary of state was next. After pushing basic elements of Donald Trump’s agenda such as “organisational burden sharing” (ie, lower US financial contributions), decrying “transnational crime” (drugs trade) and, of course, illegal immigration, Pompeo levelled his rhetorical guns at Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the latter accused of “dismantling its democracy.” Pompeo criticised Maduro’s “alteration of the constitutional order and holding a sham election”. Pompeo threatened to pursue suspension of Venezuela from the OAS, further punitive economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation if matters did not improve.
Areaza again responded. The US, he charged, is perpetrating a “coup d’etat” against Venezuela, financing street violence in Caracas and withholding scarce urgently needed medicine. “We are not Panama in 1989,” Areaza said. “We are not the Dominican Republic in 1965.” Areaza quoted Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as saying “the Monroe Doctrine is current and valid”.
But the Venezuelans are swimming against the tide. Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray Caso said his nation “cannot ignore it when democracy implodes. It may be painful to (Venezuela), but we must speak out.”
Last month, the OAS released a report it had commissioned by three independent international legal experts, from Argentina, Canada and Costa Rica. OAS will submit the report to the International Criminal Court. The impressively detailed report essentially indicts the Maduro government for crimes against humanity and may help set the stage for ICC proceedings or even regional military intervention.
The situation in Venezuela is bad and getting worse. Its effects are already widespread but will almost certainly have broader effect, until change comes. That change may come from the OAS.