Regional response to Venezuela must pack a punch

Regional response to Venezuela must pack a punch
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Last June, when the Organization of American States’ 34 members convened for a general assembly meeting in Cancún, the situation in Venezuela seemed about as desperate as one could imagine.

Now, as they prepare to convene for next week’s general assembly, the situation is orders of magnitude worse. This meeting cannot end like last year’s did. 

The 2017 general assembly saw heated discussions, with warnings that Nicolás Maduro’s upcoming establishment of a government-stacked legislative super-body would be the final deathblow to Venezuelan democracy.

The outcome of the Cancún meeting: The OAS came three votes short of even passing a declaration of censure, let alone concrete action. 

With this year’s general assembly coming on the heels of Venezuela’s sham election — whereby Maduro has handed himself another six-year “mandate” — the need to act is greater than ever.

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The Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center conducted a flash poll on the ground in Venezuela immediately following the vote, which saw unprecedented abstention from a disillusioned public. Unsurprising, considering over half of respondents called the elections illegitimate.

 

Seventy percent of respondents who abstained from the vote did so due to the illegitimacy of the electoral process and/or electoral irregularities. These same people stayed home even with the fear of losing what meager government benefits they receive, as the regime has effectively weaponized the food supply.

Importantly, 51 percent of respondents — including 53 percent of self-described independents — called for the international community to increase pressure on Maduro following the election.

The 14-member Lima Group of nations across the hemisphere released a plan of action the day after the vote, and the U.S. immediately broadened its financial sanctions to target more members of the regime and the state oil company.

Positive as these steps are, they won’t be enough. With Latin America accounting for barely over 10 percent of Venezuela’s trade, the region’s leverage in terms of financial action is limited.

What's more, issuing statements of repudiation and recalling ambassadors, as the Lima Group has called for, while necessary, will only do so much given Maduro’s growing indifference to international isolation. 

The most viable way to exert pressure on this regime is from the inside. The Venezuelan opposition, beleaguered but still defiant, must be the focal point for change. The international community must continue to not only reinforce that but also facilitate it. 

The Lima Group’s declaration acknowledges this, with provisions mandating that its member states recognize the opposition-controlled National Assembly as the only legitimate governing body, and seek its approval in every step of their response.

The National Assembly’s lawmakers are, after all, the last remaining democratically elected officials in the country. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump Paul's demand to out whistleblower rankles GOP colleagues MORE (R-Fla.) has called on the U.S. and its allies to allow these lawmakers to travel freely, whether through special visa issuance or passport exemption, so that they may inform the international community’s response.

Eyes will be on the OAS next week. Much has changed in the last year. As nearly two dozen former presidents from across the region have called for, it is long past the time to suspend Venezuela’s membership.

That’s admittedly a tall order. For years, Venezuela has bought the support of small Caribbean Basin states through a heavily subsidized oil patronage scheme called Petrocaribe.

These states’ support has time and again blocked any resolutions on Venezuela in the OAS’ one-nation, one-vote system. Next week’s meeting must change that. 

As Venezuela’s oil industry nears total collapse, production has plummeted, and Caribbean nations now import more from the U.S. than from Venezuela. With many having nearly paid off their Venezuelan debts, Caracas’ leverage over these countries is lower than ever.

There remains, of course, the possibility that Caribbean states still vote against any resolution purely out of ideological loyalty. But that, too, may be less compelling than ever before.

In a May 2 vote, OAS members decided to formally include the situation in Venezuela on the docket of the upcoming session. It may not seem like much, but despite the Venezuela issue ultimately dominating the last two general assemblies, in neither one did it receive enough support to be included on the official agenda. 

It could be a small sliver of hope to latch onto, and it will take proactive and concerted diplomacy on the margins of the meetings, but the chances next week will be better than they’ve been yet.

Of course, suspension will not solve anything on its own but it’s a necessary — and long overdue — step in the push to ramp up pressure on the Maduro regime.

In the face of an unfettered humanitarian crisis and rapid slide into dictatorship, now is the time for the “regional response” Venezuelans have long clamored for to get some additional teeth. They can’t wait much longer.

Jason Marczak is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. He is on Twitter @JMarczak.