Two weeks ago, at the invitation of Senator Bob Corker, I testified before the Committee on Foreign Relations at a hearing on Venezuela’s current crisis of governance. It was a remarkable meeting at a remarkable time in Washington.
Although the hearing started with senators expressing their willingness to add to the list of sanctioned Venezuelan officials, by the end of the session all discussion was about the need for vigorous multilateral diplomacy. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican like Mr. Corker and one of the authors of existing sanctions legislation, suggested that the Trump administration should support the invocation by the Organization of American States’ secretary general, Luis Almagro, of the O.A.S.’s Inter-American Democratic Charter, which lays out standards for democratic rule in the hemisphere.
This is a constructive development. There is a world of difference between the unilateral imposition of sanctions by the United States and the invocation of the O.A.S. democratic charter. The charter has legitimacy of origin — it was written and signed by members, including Venezuela. It also has legitimacy of use, having been invoked in 2002 to help the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and in 2009 in an attempt to stop a coup that forced a president of Honduras, José Manuel Zelaya, into exile. Finally, it has the legitimacy of contemporary consensus. The debate and negotiation required to invoke it necessarily reduce the grievances and chauvinisms inolved in bilateral conflict.
Invoking the charter does not, as is commonly thought, amount simply to a vote to suspend a country from the O.A.S. and, as a result, isolate it. Rather, the charter provides a road map for engaging a country. This engagement can entail fact-finding missions and “good offices” to facilitate dialogue and negotiation, as well as diplomatic initiatives. Only if two-thirds of the organization’s General Assembly finds that the situation is unresolvable would a country be suspended from the O.A.S.
The current hemispheric situation is more fertile than ever for the United States government to pursue multilateral diplomacy on Venezuela. A significant deterioration in Venezuelan democracy over the past year, capped by the crass suspension of a recall referendum effort in October, followed by a failure of dialogue in December, should give pause to those countries that opposed invoking the democratic charter last June.
Nevertheless, the next two years still offer a clear window of time in which to focus hemispheric attention on Venezuela, which has already delayed its regional elections, and is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2018. If the government repeats its blatant manipulation of the electoral calendar and rules, that would certainly draw the attention of the country’s neighbors.
Furthermore, the political diversification of the region’s elected leaders can lead to reconfiguring existing fault lines within the O.A.S. Indeed, effective engagement of Venezuela would require the inclusion of perspectives from across the political spectrum.
Even so, the sense of opportunity everyone felt at the Senate hearing was quickly moderated by the knowledge that the United States diplomatic corps is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Everyone there knew of reports that President Trump’s preliminary budget proposed a 37 percent reduction for the State Department. While Congress has the power to refuse cuts so deep, it seems clear that the State Department simply does not figure as a central player in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy. It should not come as a surprise that a president who ran on an isolationist “America First” platform and chose an oil executive as secretary of state does not seem to place a high value on diplomacy.
The risk is that United States policy toward Venezuela will rely on unilateral sanctions, which, by definition, require no diplomacy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they do not spur regional allies to collaborate with the United States. Rather, they strike a dissonant chord in a region with a longstanding aversion to intervention and make it more difficult for hemispheric neighbors to make progress on Venezuela.
Where does that leave us? If the Trump administration proves to be uninterested in multilateral diplomacy concerning Venezuela, other leaders in the region should seize the opportunity. As the Brazilian scholar Oliver Stuenkel has argued, the assumption that the United States or Europe must be involved in any viable solution to conflict in the global South overestimates the success of such interventions and forgets the likelihood of South-South solutions that are harder to achieve but more effective.
The South’s common market bloc, Mercosur, has already shown a willingness to challenge Venezuela on its record, effectively marginalizing it from the full benefits of membership. Mercosur could follow this by invoking a democracy clause in its rules that aims to protect human rights.
Thus far the Union of South American Nations has shown more interest in protecting member governments than member countries’ citizens. But a new secretary general could reflect the greater political diversity of the continent and more robustly press the government of President Nicolás Maduro on behalf of Venezuelans.
The United Nations could also play a significant role. Its secretary general, António Guterres, could designate a special representative to Venezuela. Finally, the bad press the Vatican received after a dialogue it promoted in October and November failed is misleading. Dialogue always moves in fits and starts, and always seems naïve — until it works.
Any of these initiatives is likely to fail, if carried out alone. But multiple initiatives on multiple tracks, carried out by multiple regional actors, could generate a web of effective engagement and give the Venezuelan people the relief they deserve.
David Smilde is a professor of sociology at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.