OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro Stands as Democracy’s Most Courageous Defender in the Region

The Organization of American States (OAS) recently commemorated the 15th anniversary of the organization’s democratic charter.

In the decade and a half since its founding, the charter and its spirit have been desecrated and mocked. The flourishing of elected dictatorships of the left, since the late 1990’s, was met with indifference and moral shallowness as political opponents were imprisoned, judiciaries were bulldozed by despots,  journalists were persecuted, and society as a whole was intimidated by the authorities.

For almost two decades the OAS has been nothing but a club of presidents all ignoring violations of democracy and human rights in the name of regional integration.

Such integration was supposed to create a powerful economic and political Latin American block. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and other countries that openly violated human rights were very much part of this project and as regional allies they could not be alienated. Therefore, the idea promoted by countries such as Brazil and other democracies was to say that the principle of sovereignty and respect for each countries’ internal affairs had priority over the application of the OAS charter. Thus, Inter-American protection of democracy was seen as an outrageous intervention that violated national rights, instead of being seen as a tool to protect universal values of freedom and human dignity. This view was also supported by the former OAS Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza.

It is obvious that the Inter-American democratic charter by virtue of being a set of international laws, and not national laws, implies that there is an element of interference in internal affairs. However, the idea was to universalize the concept of democracy and protect the people who could be victimized by the abuse of power.

By allowing dictatorships to abuse power with the excuse that this is a violation of sovereignty is not only a distortion of the OAS charter but also a cowardly attitude. Insulza, himself, pointed out several times that the OAS acts based on consensus and so there is nothing he could do about it.

However, Luis Almagro, the man who succeeded Insulza as secretary general holds a different philosophy. Almagro has made the democratic charter the center piece and main mission of his job. He is devoted almost exclusively to making sure that the democratic charter is respected.

In a recent editorial commemorating the anniversary of the charter, Almagro defined it as “the constitution of the Americas”. He pointed out that the democratic charter tells us that “basic liberties, human rights and democracy are not only good when it is suitable. The charter reminds us that if we have a commitment to protect these principles, we must be ready to act (to defend those principles)”. Thus, the OAS democratic charter is “the compass that guides us”

Last month, Almagro stated that the continuous imprisonment of Venezuelan political prisoner,Leopoldo Lopez, is the end of democracy in Venezuela. Likewise, he pointed out that “Lopez had been the victim of a lying and horrific political system,” claiming that in Venezuela “there is no fundamental freedoms and no civil or political rights”.

By the same token, Almagro indirectly complained about the attitude of left-wing leaders who have denounced only the dictatorships of the right but not of the left. This includes his former boss, former Uruguayan president,Jose Mujica,who venerated Hugo Chavez as a hero and severed relations with Almagro over  his human rights crusade. Almagro also denounced Venezuela as a ‘the most corrupt country in the region” and as a country where “political dissidents are being tortured.”

Likewise, Almagro has received relatives and spouses of political prisoners. Some of his public statements were issued through personal letters such as the one he wrote to Mr. Lopez’s wife, Lillian Tintori. He also called on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro to allow the recall referendum, a mechanism that enables the removal of the president by vote and stands at the heart of the opposition’s demands.  This is very much in contrast to the former Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who suggested giving up the recall referendum in exchange for the liberty of Mr. Lopez. Even Lopez rejected that proposal.

Almagro’s actions prompted the Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuckzynski, to speak up in support of a recall referendum.  Even the Obama administration, that has kept a low profile as Venezuela’s autocratic rule intensified, now is pushing for the fulfillment of the recall referendum.

A few weeks ago, a bi-partisan group of 30 members of the U.S Congress signed a letter directed to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury,Jack Lew, calling on the U.S. administration to take a firm stand on the crisis in Venezuela by using its leverage to hold a recall referendum this year, release all political prisoners, follow democratic principles, permit the delivery of emergency food and medicine, and stop government support for drug trafficking.

Latin American leaders are not fully in sync with Almagro yet, at least not in public. They offered to give a chance to the dialogue inside Venezuela even while knowing that this proposal is futile. Indeed, Maduro will never accept any dialogue with the opposition unless it serves as a façade to alleviate international pressure. If something is going on behind the scenes, it is not clear what it is. The only thing that is clear is that without pressure Maduro will not leave.

Most recently, Maduro appointed Vladimir Padrino Lopez as Minister of Defense and placed him in charge of food supply and distribution. Several months prior to this, General Padrino vetoed an attempt by Maduro and his associates to commit fraud during the parliamentary elections that took place in December 2015 and gave a victory to the opposition. Yet, Padrino is known for being a loyal Chavista and he reportedly has strong connections to the Castros in Cuba. However, after Padrino’s intervention in the parliamentary elections, Maduro feared to lose support from the army. In other words, what Maduro has done by appointing Padrino is an attempt to avoid future confrontation with the military and if possible to secure their support for his regime.

International pressure is now crucial to persuade those like Padrino, who are supporting the Maduro regime, that they are on the losing side and for their own sake, it would be better to abandon ship.

It is, therefore, essential that the international community and especially other Latin American countries come together and follow Almagro’s lead in demanding the recall referendum take place before the end of this year.

Published by the Center for Security Policy on September 21st, 2016

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro Stands as Democracy’s Most Courageous Defender in the Region