Venezuela’s Crisis Tests the OAS’ Legal Commitment to Defending Democracy

by Julian Ku

Foreign Policy has a great report from Michael Shifter on the ongoing diplomatic battle within the members of the Organization of American States over how to respond to Venezuela’s ongoing political and economic crisis.  According to Shifter, the OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro is pushing hard to get the OAS membership to invoke Article 20 of the OAS Democratic Charter at the upcoming June 23 special session.  Under Article 20, the Secretary General may ask the Permanent Council of the OAS to “collectively assess” as situation where there has been an “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.”   The Permanent Council can then undertake “necessary diplomatic initiatives, including good offices, to foster the restoration of democracy.”

The OAS Secretary-General has already issued a long 114 page report explaining why he believes (starting on p. 35) that there has been an “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order” of Venezuela.  I haven’t been following the Venezuela situation closely, but this report certainly lays out a strong case.  Even more importantly in my view, it offers a good explanation of why members of the OAS have (via the Democratic Charter) a strong international legal obligation to democratic governance.

The penalties for breaching this obligation aren’t all that onerous.  Under Article 21, the OAS, via a special session, can suspend Venezuela from the OAS. I am not sure how likely this is to happen, given that Article 21 has a 2/3 majority requirement.

Still, I find this whole episode a fascinating example of how an international organization can become the key vehicle for influencing the domestic governance of one of its member states.  Key states are concerned about the crisis in Venezuela, and it looks like the OAS will be the chosen vehicle of (very soft diplomatic) intervention.

One Response

  1. Great post, Julian. I have been following the Venezuela situation closely and I would like to make some comments:

    1. Although the Democratic Charter was drafted to deal with coup d’état(s) and scenarios when it is a elected government the one that turns undemocratic, States are still reluctant to apply the Charter to elected governments. In fact, the Charter has been activated only two times: in Venezuela in 2002 and in Honduras in 2009, both times following a coup d’état.

    2. Another issue with the Democratic Charter is that although it provides very specific criteria for States to determine when a government is democratic or not (Articles 3 or 4), in the end the vote to activate the Charter is political. Thus, Venezuela is gaining advantage of the vast amount of Caribbean States in the OAS, many of whom have benefitted from PetroCaribe, a program started by the Venezuelan government in 2005 whereby they provide oil loans at incredible rates and at a very long term for repayment.

    3. As you correctly point out, the penalties for breaching the activation of the Charter are not very onerous. Suspension of the OAS will not be a very big deal for the Venezuelan regime which has attacked for many years the legitimacy of organization (because it includes the US – “the everlasting imperial enemy”). In any case, the majority of the States and the Secretary General have already stated that suspension is not a possibility since no benefit would arise from such measure.

    4. The Democratic Charter is not the only one of its kind in the region. UNASUR (organization comprising the 12 South American States) and MERCOSUR (Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela) also have similar instruments. These two do provide harsher penalties such as the closing of borders, suspension of commercial rights, etc.

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