Venezuela Dominates Preliminary Discussion at 35th General Assembly of the Organization of American States

The OAS is meeting in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida from Sunday-Tuesday to discuss how to “deliver the benefits of democracy,” to all the country’s of the hemisphere. One way to do so, say US and OAS officials is to give civil society groups a “voice.” Yet the OAS’ guardianship of Latin American democracy has long been criticized as inadequate, and it is not clear that incorporating NGOs into the organization’s structure will improve the situation.

OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza smiles as he answers a question at yesterday’s press conference at the OAS General Assembly in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Credit: Jonah Gindin

Ft. Lauderdale, Fl., June 4, 2005—Downtown Ft. Lauderdale was on lock-down, yesterday, as ambassadors, delegates, and journalists arrived as part of the thirty-fifth regular session of the general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS).  The general assembly, which will be chaired by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, opens today and will last until Tuesday.  The last time the US hosted an OAS general assembly was in Atlanta, Georgia in 1974.  The security presence is especially large because of an anticipated address by President George W. Bush, who is expected to join the assembly on Monday.

Yesterday afternoon, OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, Assistant-Secretary General Luigi Enaudi, and US ambassador to the OAS John Maisto held a joint press conference, introducing the general themes of the upcoming meetings and fielding questions from the press.  Though the summit’s two major themes are “Delivering the Benefits of Democracy,” and “A Voice for Civil Society” at the OAS, yesterday’s press conference was dominated by questions about Venezuela.

In an interview with the Miami Herald yesterday, Rice argued that “Venezuela is not the dominant issue in American relations with Latin America.”  Yesterday’s press conference suggested otherwise, however.

In fact, so many journalists asked about Venezuela—primarily representatives of Venezuelan print and media, as well as journalists from US newspapers that cater to South Florida’s large Carribean community—that Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza was forced to point out that there are other countries in the region, and that the general assembly “was not a meeting about Venezuela.”

Cuban exiles and Haitian immigrants are by far South Florida’s largest expat communities, but the interests and concerns of the Miami areas’ large Venezuelan community often overlap with those of the Cuban community.  Ernesto Ackerman, founder of Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, a Florida-based “civil society organization” opposed to the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told the Sun-Sentinel he felt betrayed by the OAS’ failure to intervene “on behalf of democracy” in his native Venezuela.

The issue is one shared by many critics of the organization, on both sides of the political spectrum.  Since 2001 when the OAS adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter ostensibly committing the organization to taking a more active role in Latin American politics, the OAS has been criticized for failing to live up to their tough rhetoric.  Over the past four years, several governments have been forced to leave office in Argentina in 2001, in a quickly reversed coup in Venezuela in 2002, in Bolivia in 2003, in Haiti in 2004, and most recently in Ecuador in 2004.  In the face of these “disturbances in the constitutional order,” the OAS has failed to adequately differentiate between popular uprisings to overthrow undemocratic governments, such as in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, and the unconstitutional overthrow of democratically elected governments, such as in the Venezuelan and Haitian coups.

In Venezuela’s forty-eight hour coup on April 11th, for example, the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) guessed embarrassingly wrong.  An IACHR communiqué on April 13th deplored the suspension of the judiciary, the legislature, and the Constitution, suggesting these actions “could constitute an interruption of the constitutional order” yet proceeded to call for immediate elections, rather than the restoration of the elected government of Hugo Chávez.  Such apparent hypocrisy in a body that bills itself as the hemisphere’s premier defender of democracy has lost the OAS considerable prestige over the years.

The OAS’ complicity in the overthrow of former-Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2003 further damaged the organization’s credibility among many pro-democracy activists in the hemisphere.

Yet many who consider themselves pro-democracy welcomed the coup in Venezuela, and have criticized the OAS for failing to intervene against Chávez, now that he has been restored to power and is seen to be deepening his control over the country.

Chávez was elected by wide margins in internationally observed elections in 1998 and 2000, and his mandate was recently reconfirmed in a referendum held last August, in which Chávez received 60 per cent of the vote.  A recent poll put his support raiting at an impressive 70.5 per cent, making him one of the hemisphere’s most popular Presidents.

The OAS hopes its “Declaration of Florida: Delivering the Benefits of Democracy,”—the  primary focus of the summit—will restore confidence in the organization.

Civil Society at the OAS

After the “Declaration of Florida,” next on the OAS’ agenda is an initiative supported by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as OAS Secretary General Insulza, to “give civil society a voice” at the OAS.  For the past several years the OAS General Assembly has invited a select group of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to make a presentation to the assembly, a process which was formalized in 2003.  At the “Hemispheric Civil Society Forum” held in Washington in April, representatives from 70 civil society organizations took part in seminars aimed at drafting a common statement.  These organizations will present to the assembly later this morning.

But more than merely listing their grievances, these civil society groups will be pressing to give the OAS more teeth in its hemispheric role as the ‘democracy police’, and for the establishment of an institutionalized and permanent space within the OAS for civil society groups to voice grievances and make denunciations.

Yet it remains unclear what role civil society will play at the OAS in future.  The inherent vagueness of the designations “Non-Governmental Organization,” or “civil society group” means that an impressive variety of groups answer to these names.  NGOs are not only human rights groups, but also private sector institutions, and ideologically or politically oriented think tanks.  References to NGOs often hint that these groups are neutral or otherwise removed from the politics of the countries in which they exist.  But the umbrella-term encompasses such a wide variety of organizations and institutions that this suggestion is misleading.

Maria Corina Machado, director of the Venezuelan NGO Súmate, will be one of the representatives participating in the civil society presentation later today.  Though they describe themselves as non-aligned in the stark polarization of Venezuela’s political landscape, Súmate came into existence expressly to promote a recall referendum against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

But perhaps Súmate’s most controversial moment came during the April 2002 coup against Chávez, in which Machado’s signature appears on the attendance sheet of the swearing-in of the illegal government.

Last Tuesday Machado met with President George W. Bush in a move that angered Venezuelan government officials, and would appear to have been designed to send a message to Chávez from the US, with whom relations have been shaky since Chávez came onto the scene in 1998.  In an interview with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Miami Herald yesterday, Rice referred to the Machado-Bush meeting as a signal of US “support for democracy.”

Many in Venezuela, however, took it as a signal of the Bush administration’s continued support for the anti-Chávez opposition in Venezuela.  Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by reveal large financial flows from the US Agency for International Development (AID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to Venezuelan opposition groups—including Súmate.

If civil society is going to play a larger role in the OAS, the question remains: what kind of transparency and accountability will there be to assure that these civil society groups’ interests are indeed democratic?  Will the OAS apply the same criteria in evaluating the democratic credentials of civil society groups that they apply to governments?

When posed these questions to OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza at yesterday’s press conference, he answered, “The OAS can always improve the accreditation process for NGOs,” referring to the process by which certain NGOs are invited to participate in the General Assembly.  “You can ask ‘who is behind them?’,” Insulza continued, “‘what do they do?’ etc.  But ultimately, this is Organization of American States.”  Others can participate, but in the end it is the governments who make the decisions.

Nonetheless, if civil society is going to be “given a voice” at the OAS, at some point these questions will have to be answered.  OAS literature for this year’s civil society question suggests that “through citizen participation, civil society organizations should contribute to the design…of public policies.”  If, as the Democratic Charter states, “It is the right and responsibility of all citizens to participate…for the full and effective exercise of democracy,” is it not the right and responsibility of the OAS to assure that civil society organizations be made accountable—just like government—to the people they purport to represent?