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Revive South American union to rescue Venezuelan democracy

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The Union of South American Nations is a dead man walking, after half of its 12 members abandoned the group this spring. Their walkout was widely celebrated as a comeuppance for a regional body established by leftists hellbent on swatting the United States away from Latin America.

But lost in the schadenfreude that greeted the group’s collapse was a beloved trait of an unloved organization: a democracy requirement for members that offers a potent tool for solving the crisis in Venezuela. After Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Latin America to press for action against Venezuela and returned empty handed, it has become clear that UNASUR’s implosion has limited the U.S. ability to encourage stricter measures against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

{mosads}In 2010, UNASUR’s members amended the body’s charter to add an unusually robust democracy clause. Unlike similar rules adopted by other regional bodies, such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the union not only requires democracy but promises severe punishment for any member that violates democratic principles. Like the OAS, the union has the right to suspend a member for “a rupture or threat of rupture to the democratic order,” as it did in 2012, after the Congress of Paraguay precipitously impeached President Fernando Lugo.

But Article IV of the UNASUR charter goes far beyond just banishment. It also permits the total closure of land borders, along with the suspension of trade, air and maritime traffic, and energy supplies. These economic sanctions are significant because even the region’s harshest critics of Venezuela have largely balked at sanctioning Caracas, despite relentless pressure from President Trump. Only Panama has taken that step among Latin American nations, whereas the United States, the European Union, Switzerland and Canada have all sanctioned Venezuela.

The casual reaction to UNASUR’s collapse was understandable. The organization, modeled after the European Union, was established in 2008 at the height of the “pink tide” in Latin America that saw leftist governments elected throughout the region. A pet project of Brazil, it was designed to limit the influence of the United States and Mexico in South American affairs. Its first secretary general was former leftist Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, and its biggest booster was another anti-American firebrand, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

By the time Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Paraguay abandoned UNASUR, the region’s politics had changed dramatically. Leftists were out of power in Buenos Aires, Brasilia and Santiago, and Venezuela’s economic collapse had sapped its diplomatic mojo. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who helped launch UNASUR, is in prison. Chile’s foreign minister, Roberto Ampuero, said the country’s newly elected conservative president would no longer “be throwing money at an institution that does not work.” Colombia’s president-elect is threatening a permanent exit from the organization.

Argentina’s rotating presidency of UNASUR, beginning in 2017, had offered a stay of execution. But after Argentina failed to win approval for its candidate to lead the organization, José Octavio Bordón, a widely respected ambassador and former governor, the Argentines lost interest. In any event, Buenos Aires preferred the OAS for addressing the Venezuelan crisis. Under its last secretary general, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, UNASUR had been considered overly sympathetic to Caracas. Finally, an informal collection of countries, known as the Lima Group, had begun coordinating Venezuela policy without the need to negotiate with Maduro apologists in La Paz and Quito.

Previously, activating UNASUR’s democracy clause would have been a diplomatic Hail Mary. After all, it has been impossible to obtain a two-thirds majority to suspend Venezuela from the OAS, and suspension from UNASUR requires a unanimous vote. But these days, Venezuela has few friends in South America. Most of its OAS support comes from Caribbean and Central American governments that long ago traded their votes for discounted oil shipments. By contrast, in South America, Bolivia is Venezuela’s last reliable ally. Ecuador’s new president does not share his predecessor’s affection for Maduro, and as host of UNASUR’s headquarters, the Ecuadorians are eager to demonstrate its value.

Given UNASUR’s unique weapon for defending democracy, and the continued repression and food and medicine shortages in Venezuela, its members should give the group one last chance before it is formally dissolved. Should Bolivian President Evo Morales quash an effort to sanction Venezuela, the majority of South America’s governments would have at least demonstrated Venezuela’s isolation. By contrast, should diplomatic pressure shame Bolivia into an abstention, the region would finally impose meaningful penalties for Venezuela’s authoritarian turn.

Chávez’s own supporters, including his protégé Morales, should welcome UNASUR action. In creating it, the late Venezuelan leader dreamt of Latin American nations solving their own problems. What better way to honor his mantra, “South America is for South Americans,” than by reviving UNASUR to rescue Venezuela’s democracy?

Benjamin Gedan is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as South America director on the White House National Security Council under President Obama. Christopher Phalen is a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Tags Democracy Donald Trump Government Mike Pence sanctions Venezuela

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