Did I miss something? After the big build-up to the June 23 meeting of the Permanent Council convened by Secretary General Luis Almagro, the event didn’t even end with a whimper: it ended with lunch. No vote; no collective statement; no forced resignation of Almagro (as Nicaragua and Bolivia called for); no Bolivarian victory of a showdown vote in which they and their allies humiliate their pro-democratic adversaries. It didn’t even end with a collective call for dialogue and a plan to meet again.
The call to dialogue and a plan to meet again was what I predicted would happen. I figured it was a sufficiently low bar. I was wrong. Yet despite the fact that the meeting fell even below my low expectations, it shouldn’t be seen as a total bust.
In part, there was too much hyperbole in the buildup to the vote—rampant speculation that if someone had read the Democratic Charter could have been avoided. According to the Charter, there is no requirement of a vote under Article 20—which is how Almagro convened the body. Nor is there even a provision for the acceptance or rejection of a Secretary General’s report (Almagro had prepared a 114-page analysis of the sorry state of democracy in Venezuela, arguing in sum that there had been an alteration in the constitutional order, which would be a reason to invoke the Democratic Charter.) In that case, many were predicting that the former Uruguayan foreign minister could be humiliated with a rejection of his report. In fact, under Article 20, the Charter doesn’t require, or even mention, a report. Some analysts had even gone so far to predict that Venezuela would be kicked out of the OAS. (Some visibly agitated OAS ambassadors, such as the ambassador from Dominica seemed to think the same too and strenuously argued against it.) But that too isn’t possible under Article 20. For that action, it has to be a General Assembly meeting. (Although in Article 20 the Permanent Council can remove the member government from some committees and activities, it can’t kick out the government altogether.)
So, because none of the fireworks or actions that others predicted came to pass and I was wrong even in my minimalist prediction, was this a complete failure that has left Almagro’s reputation and future irreparably damaged?
Some have argued that Almagro was asking too much of the organization, forcing it to do something for which it wasn’t equipped. That argument, though, fundamentally misses the point. (It is also woefully wrong if history is to be any indicator. Former Secretary General César Gavíria led the body on a number of diplomatic missions that were not specifically endorsed by either precedent or the Permanent Council.)
For the first time in the Venezuela case, the OAS has done what it was supposed to do. It raised a proper, collective discussion of the state of democracy in Venezuela. This is a far cry better than silence, inaction and the occasional cranky comment under the most recent OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza. And by doing so, it forced the Venezuelan government to respond to a number of the charges that have been leveled against it, not just by Almagro but by a slew of human rights organizations, activists, journalists, and former presidents.
Sure, it could have gone farther. Heck, it could have done what I was hoping: call for a diplomatic mission and plan to meet again. (You can always agree to meet again, at a minimum, can’t you?) And under Article 20’s actual provisions it could have referred the case to the General Assembly, but that was always asking too much.
Yes, the Venezuelan government will crow that it got what it wanted. But did it?
The famously thin-skinned regime had to endure multiple government representatives in a public forum raising concerns about the state of democracy in its country. The net effect was that Almagro shone a bright spotlight on a constitutional referendum process, a process put into the Venezuelan constitution by President Chávez himself and that the government is now trying to deny the opposition. In doing so, Almagro and some OAS members made clear a set of expectations. Of course, it would have been better to establish actual consequences if the government failed to negotiate in good faith or if the government failed to respect its own constitutional right to a referendum. And it would have been better if the whole matter weren’t still in the hands of the toothless UNASUR.
But a debate has occurred and a marker has been set down by several countries that before had never spoken up publicly or collectively. Plus, I suspect some of those countries have lit a fire under the dialogue process.
I’ll take it. Beats the last 10 years.