At long last, after a decade of timid leadership that condemned it to near irrelevance, the 34-country Organization of American States came back to life this week with a courageous letter by Secretary General Luis Almagro denouncing Venezuela’s efforts to rig its Dec. 6 legislative elections.
It was a pleasant surprise by the OAS’ new leader, a Uruguayan diplomat whom many of us regarded with apprehension when he was elected earlier this year. During his stint as Uruguay’s foreign minister in recent years, Almagro had most often looked the other way at constant violations of democratic principles by Venezuela.
Almagro’s activism to uphold the OAS democratic principles marks a sea change from previous OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, who during his 2005-2015 leadership of the Washington-based organization refused to use his bully pulpit to formally condemn Venezuela’s abuses. Taking a narrow interpretation of the OAS bylaws, Insulza claimed that he had no powers to act unless asked to do so by member states.
Earlier this week, Almagro sent an unusually strong 18-page letter to the head of Venezuela’s government-controlled National Electoral Council, known by its Spanish acronym CNE. The Council had previously banned the OAS, the European Union and other credible international institutions from sending electoral observing missions to the Dec. 6 elections.
In his letter to Venezuela’s CNE chief Tibisay Lucena, Almagro denounced that Venezuela is offering “no conditions of transparency and electoral justice” to guarantee clean and fair elections. He urged Lucena to take actions against irregularities that the CNE “can and must correct.”
Almagro’s letter cited dozens of irregularities in Venezuela’s election process, including the massive use of state resources to support government candidates, government control of the media, and the imprisonment of opposition leaders such as Leopoldo Lopez.
Furthermore, Almagro criticized government-designed electoral districts that give some tiny states that support the government or are too remote to guarantee a fair counting of the votes much greater representation in congress than some of the country’s biggest states that are opposition strongholds.
In addition, Almagro cited the Venezuelan government’s little-disguised efforts to trick opposition voters with confusing electoral ballots, in which the opposition MUD coalition’s box is surrounded by those of pro-government groups with virtually the same initials, and similar logos.
Amid a near 200 percent inflation rate — the highest in the world — widespread food shortages and record crime rates, polls are showing overwhelming support for the opposition in the upcoming legislative elections. Many fear a social explosion if Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro rigs the vote.
Asked about Almagro’s letter, former Colombian President Andres Pastrana told me that “this marks a change at the OAS, from an institution that was obedient to Venezuela, to an institution that is acting with independence.”
Pastrana, who is planning a trip to Venezuela alongside other former Latin American presidents ahead of the elections to support pro-democracy groups, added that Almagro’s letter to the CNE could be used as a legal basis for OAS member countries to invoke the group’s 2001 Democratic Charter against Venezuela if there is fraud in the upcoming election. Invoking the charter could lead to collective sanctions against Venezuela.
My opinion: Almagro’s new activism on Venezuela may be an effort on his part to rescue the OAS from its recent irrelevance, or a sincere attempt to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Venezela, or a wise political move to anticipate new political winds that are blowing in the region, or all of the above.
As I’ve said in previous columns, Latin America’s leftist populist governments are severely weakened by the recent collapse of world commodity prices, and by massive corruption scandals. Almagro’s Uruguay is now led by more moderate leader Tabare Vazquez, and whoever wins Argentina’sNov. 22 presidential elections is likely to be more moderate and pro-democratic than Cristina Fernandez, the outgoing leftist president.
Most important, Brazil’s leftist government is facing huge corruption scandals that may lead to an impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, or her calling a unity government to serve the remainder of her term.
In this new political climate, Almagro may have decided to be at the forefront of the coming political changes. Whatever his motives, he deserves applause for showing leadership and beginning to enforce the OAS agreements for the defense of democracy in the region.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.