The horrific situation in Venezuela must be seen in the context of two fundamental but conflicting principles governing international relations: on the one hand, non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, and on the other hand, the rights of people universally to have their human rights and democratic freedoms respected.
The first principle is ancient, though rarely observed. The second principle came to prominence and widespread acceptance after the Second World War.
In our own hemisphere, these two principles, embodied in the charter of the Organization of American States (OAS), are grounded not in philosophical abstractions but in actual state practice.
When the OAS was created after World War II to provide an institutional framework for relations between Latin America and the US, there were two political dynamics at play: Latin America hoped to cast a net of multilateral restraint upon the Gulliver to the north, and the US wanted to create a convenient cloak of multilateral legality for managing its hegemony over the region. Neither aspiration was ever satisfactorily fulfilled.
The US continued to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin America states, either propping up dictatorships or overthrowing democratically elected governments. Hence the perennial juridical preoccupation of Latin America with non-intervention and territorial integrity. After all, that is a crucial part of their history.
But another even more brutal part of their history was the prevalence of military dictators, who systematically violated every tenet of human rights: imprisoning, torturing, ’disappearing’ and slaughtering their own peoples. Hence the impulse for the creation of an inter-American system of human rights, anchored in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in 1948, the establishment of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in 1959, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1979. Then there was the adoption by OAS members of the Democratic Charter in 2001.
The entry of the English-speaking Caribbean states into the OAS, starting in the 1960s, followed by Canada in 1990, apart from making it a genuinely hemispheric Organization, helped to strengthen the emphasis on human rights and democracy.
The crisis in Venezuela is situated on these fault lines in our hemisphere.
President Maduro, and Chavez before him, destroyed the economy: inflation is soaring, unemployment is high, basic foodstuffs and medicine are in short supply and people are starving. Two million Venezuelans have fled the country and the streets of Caracas are filled with tens of thousands of demonstrators.
Interesting footnote: the state-owned oil company through its American affiliate donated half a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration. Hmmm . . . .
More to the point, Maduro has crippled democratic institutions, violated human rights, suppressed individual freedoms, undermined the rule of law and justice, and, in an act of dictatorship, had its subservient Supreme Court, which has been steadily stripping the Congress of its powers since the opposition parties were elected to a huge majority in 2016, abolish the legislative power of the elected Congress – an act which it had to quickly reverse in response to the international outcry.
The ruthless authoritarianism of the government of Nicolas Maduro has triggered different responses by CARICOM countries. Twelve CARICOM members (these exclude Barbados, Montserrat and Trinidad & Tobago) are members of Petrocaribe, and six of these are also members of the Chavez-inspired revolutionary foolishness called ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America). Just to rub in the point, Maduro noted in 2014 that countries Venezuela perceived as intervening in its affairs would “go dry.” Many rightly interpreted this phrase as a warning to Petrocaribe beneficiaries to refrain from supporting OAS resolutions critical of the regime. And it has been successful.
On April 26 this year, a special meeting of the Permanent Council of the OAS, approved a resolution to convene a meeting of OAS Ministers of Foreign Affairs to consider the situation in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government rejected the motion as an interference in their internal affairs. The CARICOM countries supporting the resolution were Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and St Lucia. They were joined by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States and Uruguay.
Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Haiti, Nicaragua, St Kitts & Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname voted against, along with with Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador; while Belize, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and El Salvador abstained. Grenada voted with its feet and was absent. As a result of that decision, the Maduro government of Venezuela decided to withdraw from the Organization.
Meanwhile, the situation in Venezuela deteriorates. Dozens of peaceful protestors have been killed and hundreds injured by the paramilitary hooligans used by the government. Thousands of people have been arrested, most of them held in custody illegally. There has been a reported increase in attacks and arbitrary detentions of journalists, and censorship of national and international media outlets.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly condemned the actions of the Maduro government. It issued a statement condemning “any attempt by the Venezuelan authorities to prevent the holding of elections and to suppress citizens’ right to vote.”
It is in this context that the statements of some of those CARICOM governments supporting Maduro are highly disingenuous.
One CARICOM leader argued that “toppling a government” would not end the horrific conditions “when there is no viable, electable single alternative to replace it”. This flies in the face of reality. The opposition parties were overwhelmingly elected to and control the Congress, despite all efforts of the government to sabotage them. That is precisely why Maduro attempted to strip Congress of all its powers.
The ambassador of another CARICOM country supporting Venezuela, amazingly and incredibly, has been publicly blaming the OAS rather than Maduro.
Thank God there are still some CARICOM countries, including Barbados, that have remained true to our subregion’s longstanding advocacy of democracy and human rights.
The only solution in Venezuela is free and fair elections, supervised by the OAS. Nothing less will now do.
(Dr Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the foreign service who also served during his career as Barbados’ ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States.)