On April 26, 2017, Venezuela’s foreign minister announced that the country would be withdrawing from the Organization of American States. Against the background of violent unrest in the country, the decision has generated uncertainty in the region, for OAS, and for similar regional organizations.
Almost two months of protests against President Maduro have resulted in dozens of deaths. In addition to internal protest, the government has been facing international condemnation from the media, governments, and organizations like OAS, whose criticism lead to the initial threat to withdraw from the organization. Political opposition comes on the back of economic crisis which has left the country in heavy debt, stifled by inflation and unemployment. Maduro, for his part, has been criticized for using the sympathetic Supreme Court to consolidate power and will be appointing a committee to rewrite the constitution. In response to the protests, he has been accused of unnecessary force and detaining political activists.
In March, a OAS issued report accused Maduro of violating “every article of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” and the organization debated suspending Venezuela. In the United States, March’s Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act refers to the conflict as a “rupture of constitutional order” and supports the OAS. Co-sponsor Rep. Nelson’s floor speech accused Maduro of “undermining democracy,” further supporting the Maduro administration’s claims of American interference.
Throughout the crisis, the administration has accused outside groups, rightly or wrongly, of interfering in the Venezuelan economy and politics. Energy Minister Motta claimed right-wing terrorists were responsible for a cut submarine cable. Ambassador Moncada blamed the protests on the OAS resolution. The language of the announcement and of supporters in its aftermath focused on interventionalism, and reflected regional fears of a new colonialism, and an exclusive and constricting new world order. Given the interventionalist history of the United States in Latin America, Maduro’s accusations of American conspiracy sound less far-fetched, but are no less destructive.
The final straw was the Washington foreign ministers meeting on the “Situation in Venezuela.” Foreign Minister Rodriguez threatened, and finally announced, Venezuelan withdrawal from OAS if there were such a meeting, being part of the intolerable “intrusive, arbitrary, illicit, misdirected and rude actions…against the sovereignty of our country.” The departure will be a OAS first, and leaves its remaining members in a Brexit-esque situation. According to the charter’s Article 143, “after two years…the charter will cease to be in force…to the denouncing State, which will cease to belong to the organization after it has fulfilled the obligations arising from the present Charter.” Those obligations will be financial, meaning Venezuela will have to repay its $8 million debt to OAS, and may be interpreted to include the democratic clauses of the charter, under which Venezuela could have been suspended. Given this simple clause’s financially and potentially politically costly implications, full withdrawal may lead to more infighting and fissures between OAS members. In the worst-case situation, the United States and its allies may face a united coalition of Latin American and leftist states supporting Maduro, and potentially the dissolution of the OAS.
The combination of active political opposition and economic upheaval could be lethal for Maduro’s government, and already has been for many protestors. With Brexit, the American threat to withdraw from NATO, and Venezuela’s OAS withdrawal, the past year has already generated major international concern for the future of regional, multinational organizations, and the stability of the post-Cold War world order as it has been known. In Latin America especially, the complicated interplay of security and sovereignty, colonialism and capitalism, Bolivarian tradition and American intervention, as always been a major part of the continent’s history and may forever be a part of its international relations.
Note: picture was taken in Sitges, Spain.