Latin America Defies US Over Venezuela at OAS

Most Latin American countries have said that they are opposed to the Bush administration's draft for a final statement at the 35th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). Most see it as an effort to isolate Venezuela in the future.

Ft. Lauderdale, FL, June 6, 2005—An American proposal to reform the Organization of American States’ (OAS) democratic charter has been rejected by a majority of Latin American countries.  The draft of the US proposal, called the “Declaration of Flordia: Delivering the Benefits of Democracy,” is considered to be too interventionist by at least 28 countries who have refused to sign it. Chile has tabled a counter-proposal that alters some of the offending articles.  Chile’s counter-proposal is signed by 10 other countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago.

The Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) tabled their own counter-proposal, bringing the number of countries against the US’ proposal to 25.  Mexico and Argentina, though not signatories on either proposal, said they were reviewing both and were in agreement with the general gist.  For its part, Venezuela considered the Caricom counter-proposal in particular to be generally acceptable—though it is still not clear whether they will support one or the other counter-proposal, or neither.

The US proposal advocates for the creation of a mechanism for the “application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in defending, protecting and promoting democracy.”  But exactly what the “application” of the Charter implies is unclear.  Many delegates fear it would be a carte blanche for the OAS to intervene politically in a country that has been declared undemocratic.

Referring to the proposal on her way to Fort Lauderdale, Rice reinforced these fears, reminding the State Department press pool that “the OAS has intervened in the past…this is not a matter of intervening to punish; it is a matter of intervening to try and sustain the development of democratic institutions across the region.”

Her use of the word intervention for what, up until yesterday morning, had been billed benignly as a mechanism for “promoting democracy,” encompassed vaguely in the draft itself under the blanket term “application,” would appear to have struck a nerve with Latin American leaders.

Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim addresses the OAS.
Credit: Roberto Ribeiro-OAS/OEA

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told the OAS General Committee on Monday morning that “cooperation and dialogue, rather than interventionist mechanisms, should be the key concepts,” governing any application of the Democratic Charter.

In a statement made in Mexico City, Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar told reporters “In principle, we are not in agreement with any tutelage from anybody,” when it comes to democracy.  Mexico has long held a fiercely non-interventionist position.

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Alí Rodriguez said the founding charter of the OAS is “extremely clear with respect to non-intervention in the internal affairs of member-states, the right to elect government without external interference.” 

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez addresses the OAS.
Credit: Roberto Ribeiro-OAS/OEA

According to Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS Jorge Valero, Venezuela held bilateral relations with representatives of most of South America, the Caribbean, several countries of Central America, and two-thirds of North America.  One notable exception was the United States.  Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Alí Rodriguez Araque noted in a press conference earlier this morning that Venezuela’s ambassador to the US Bernardo Alvarez has been requesting a meeting with Rice for the past two months with no luck.  Nonetheless, this afternoon the US Secretary of State made the time to meet with Maria Corina Machado, director of opposition NGO Súmate (“Join Up”).  Machado was also received last week by President Bush, a recognition that Venezuelan President Chávez has yet to receive.

Self-Determination and Non-Intervention

“The OAS should be an organization promoting democracy,” said Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez on Monday morning, “not an organ for intervention in the internal affairs of our countries.”

In response to the unacceptable US proposal, two counter-proposals have emerged.  The first, proposed by Chile with 10 other countries, proposes that to support and encourage democracy in the region the OAS should “give assistance to those countries who solicit it,”—a clear reference to the wording of the Democratic Charter which depends on the OAS to be invited to a country in order for the hemispheric body to investigate democratic shortcomings.  Yet the Chile counter-proposal still recommends the application of the Democratic Charter when it will advance the development of democracy in the region.

The Caricom version stays truest to the Democratic Charter.  According to Valero, it is the Caricom version that Venezuela feels most comfortable with.  “We’re very happy with the general idea of [the Caricom version],” he said earlier today.

Argentinean Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa reportedly said his country was reviewing both counter-proposals, but that they were more or less in agreement with them.  Mexico was also reported to be revising the counter-proposals, though it is not yet clear if they will sign one, or oppose all three options.

Caricom countries have had an exceedingly uneasy relationship with the US since former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a US-assisted coup last year.  Though the subsequent occupation of the Latin America’s poorest country is being led by Brazil, that does not obscure the US’ core role to many Caribbean leaders.  In pushing their proposal on Latin American countries as a thinly veiled attack against Venezuela, Bush and Rice may well have encouraged Caricom, and perhaps others, to reject it (whatever they think of the content) due to the animosity US actions in the region have precipitated.

Such independent thinking among Latin American leaders was unthinkable just a few years ago.  When the OAS was formed in 1948, its mandate was expressly to combat communism in the hemisphere, making it a virtual arm of US foreign policy.  Cuba was suspended from the organization in 1962 and continues to be excluded from it as the hemisphere’s only “non-democratic nation.”

But since the election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 1998, followed by a slew of left-center governments in Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, the region has begun to drift out of the US-orbit, opening the possibility of a more idiosyncratic political climate at the OAS.