On March 23rd, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that the government was requesting the assistance of the United Nations to address the country’s healthcare crisis. For months now, the stories and pictures pouring out of the oil-rich country have been heartrending—of emaciated babies in cribs, of patients lined up in hospital halls some lying in pools of blood, and of mentally ill patients physically collapsed into their inner horrors because of the lack of medicine. Maduro’s request for UN assistance is long overdue; ironically the humanitarian tragedy is because of his government’s own massive, corrupt policy failures.
Everyone should take Maduro’s sudden epiphany of empathy for his fellow citizens with a grain of salt. It’s no coincidence that the embattled president made the request just as the region is ramping up a vote in the Organization of American States (OAS) to potentially condemn and even sanction Venezuela for the sorry state of democracy in the Andean country. Thanks to the year-long-plus leadership of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and the focus of the Trump administration (yes, there I’ve said and admitted it), 14 countries are now lined up to bring Venezuela to a discussion under the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter. Finally.
Maduro’s appeal to the UN needs to be seen as just another example of the government’s long-running strategy to dodge international accountability for its violation of human rights and democratic norms. Just as the pressure started to mount for a serious multilateral debate on the human rights/democratic situation in Venezuela, Maduro’s government discovered its own medical humanitarian crisis—though those have been documented now for months. Any serious observer shouldn’t be surprised.
There’s history here. When international pressure was mounting over the government’s crackdown on protestors in 2015, it leaned on the toothless Union of South American Republics (UNASUR) to broker a compromise. When the partisan electoral commission closed off the last constitutional option of a resolution to the country’s deadlock by indefinitely postponing a recall referendum and protestors took to the streets, the Maduro government called in the Vatican. That Vatican-brokered dialogue was supposed to be different, real. It wasn’t. It ended the same as other methods except with the particularly sinister outcome that the democratic opposition surrendered its right to protest in the streets (as an implied condition for the talks, though with no parallel concessions from the other side) and lost credibility in public opinion. Just to put this in context, according to a recent study of political prisoners in Venezuela, Maduro has 106 political opponents in his jails—more than are in Castro’s prisons in Cuba.
Now facing a regional censure of its autocratic policies, the Maduro government turns to another distraction: the United Nations. In international relations we call this forum shopping: looking for the multilateral institution best suited to protecting a nation’s interest.
But if the Venezuelan government is cynically forum shopping, it doesn’t mean you need to focus on the forum they seek. The trick is to keep your eye on what they’re up to—which is reshuffle the deck and people’s sympathies. Who can be against providing humanitarian support to the mortally wounded? To babies? To the mentally ill? No one. But that isn’t the story here.
The problem is not some just mysteriously generated healthcare crisis or a victimized government. The medical and food humanitarian tragedy in Venezuela is a symptom of the Maduro government itself. And addressing the root problems of the problem leads us back to the OAS vote.
In the next few weeks, those 14 or so heads of state in the Western Hemisphere who have signed for a discussion on Venezuela under the Inter-American Charter shouldn’t back down or get distracted by a new activity. The humanitarian involvement of the UN shouldn’t be a distraction for the immediate political and human rights problems the country confronts.
As Mark Twain said, “it’s difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future,” but here I’m going to try. My prediction is that in a further attempt to distract and forum shop, the Maduro government is going to go the full monty and call for the involvement of UNASUR or the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC) to assist the UN. You can’t blame them. UNASUR and CELAC have proven convenient foils for the less-than-democratic governments in the region, and they would effectively box out the OAS.
This time will media (as some did before), regional governments, the U.S. State Department, and others fall for it? Historical perspective will help, as will a recognition of the roots of the current crisis and of the Maduro government’s usual tactics.
In the meantime, keep your eye on the real card here: the OAS. Let’s hope the OAS still plays it.