The following appeared in the June 19, 2017 edition of the Surinamese newspaper de Ware Tijd
Op-Ed by Edwin R. Nolan
Ambassador of the United States of America
The Americas Should Defend Venezuela’s
Democracy with Diplomacy
The diverse family of nations in the Americas recognizes democracy is a part of our collective DNA. Sixteen years ago in Peru, we underscored this principle with the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, affirming the right of the peoples of the Americas to democracy and obligating our governments to defend that right.
The Organization of American States has for decades provided us a forum to discuss our greatest challenges and take action together to address them. The challenge before us today is the death spiral of democracy in Venezuela.
The OAS has historically responded effectively to military coups which usurped, or sought to usurp, power from democratically-elected governments. While such military coups thankfully recede evermore into the past, the more complicated lessons of the Fujimori regime’s “self-coup” in Peru – shuttering the Congress, co-opting the judiciary and military in order to maintain power under a newly imposed constitution – informed the creation of the path-breaking Inter-American Democratic Charter.
In Venezuela today, the Maduro Government has relentlessly and intentionally undermined other Constitutional branches of government from the inside.
Since opposition parties won a majority of seats in 2015, Venezuela’s National Assembly has been systematically smothered by the Maduro government. Citing vague, unproven claims of electoral fraud allegedly committed by three legislators, the government has denied the legislative branch the right to pass laws and the captive judiciary has declared Venezuela’s Congress “in contempt,” stripping it of all legislative authority. Maduro usurped the right of the National Assembly to appoint new members of the National Electoral Council, a right clearly provided for in Article 296 of Venezuela’s constitution.
When the Venezuelan people tried to hold their government accountable by putting Maduro’s leadership to a vote through a recall referendum, the government again hid behind vague, unproven claims of fraud to delay the referendum; and, when it became clear the government would lose, it engaged in a failed dialogue. Article 72 of Venezuela’s constitution clearly stipulates that all public offices filled by popular vote are subject to revocation – a concept former President Chavez defended vigorously in order hold to account governments that forget the needs of their people. Indeed, Chavez both won and lost referenda; Maduro squelched one.
Maduro increasingly relies on Venezuela’s military to control the economy, intimidate opponents and suppress popular discontent. More than 331 Venezuelan civilians are being held and prosecuted by military courts in secret trials. Yet Article 261 of Venezuela’s Constitution clearly states that the jurisdiction of military courts is limited to offenses of a military nature. Venezuela’s own Attorney General, appointed by then-President Hugo Chavez in 2007, has condemned the trials and been refused access to the prisoners.
The Maduro government has had every opportunity to end its march away from democracy. Last November, in talks overseen by the Vatican, it promised in a joint declaration with the political opposition that it would remain “strictly within the constitutional framework: one democratic, peaceful and electoral path.” Remarkably, the regime failed to implement any of its public commitments under the talks and has instead continued to sabotage Venezuela’s democracy.
Faced with a crumbling economy and massive popular dissatisfaction, the Maduro regime is now destroying the last vestiges of the democratic order. The government has called for a constituent assembly to abandon Chavez’ constitution and write a new one in a process that would instantly wipe away the current National Assembly, the Attorney General and other existing institutions, trampling on popular suffrage and other constitutional requirements.
When a government breaks with democracy, we must act in solidarity with its people. Not through intervention or interference, but with diplomacy and mediation among all parties to help find a peaceful, democratic, and comprehensive solution.
The spillover effects from Venezuela’s crisis are serious and growing, whether it is irregular migrant flows to countries in our region or the increasing flows of arms and criminal activity that affect the Caribbean in particular. All our countries have a direct stake in finding a negotiated solution that restores the rule of law and economic prosperity to our troubled neighbor.
The General Assembly of the Organization of American States is the venue for us to unify as a region and act to foster negotiations in Caracas to return to a respect for democracy, end the polarizing violence, and help the Venezuelan people reclaim their democratic rights and their power.