The Cable

The OAS punts on Venezuela

A remarkable thing almost happened in Washington this past week. The Organization of American States nearly became relevant to the ongoing political turmoil in Venezuela following Hugo Chávez's missed inauguration. Alas, it was not to be -- as apparently the only thing that stirs Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, a Chilean socialist, to action is when fellow leftists are removed from power for their abuses (see Honduras, 2007).

Indeed, making matters worse, the diplomat who tried to rouse the organization on Venezuela wound up getting fired by his government for his temerity.

Panamanian representative to the OAS Guillermo Cochez took to the floor last week to criticize Insulza's supine reaction to recent events in Venezuela, including the decision of the Chávez-packed Supreme Court to overrule their constitution and delay the president's swearing-in for his new term in office, since no one has seen or heard from Chávez in more than a month. (He is believed to be in Cuba, convalescing from a reported fourth cancer surgery. Nominally in charge, but resting on no constitutional basis, is Chávez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro.)

Citing the lack of transparency on Chávez's health and lack of independent institutions in the country, Cochez called Venezuela "a sick democracy." He said that if the OAS was not going to be concerned about whether events there were in compliance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter (to which Venezuela is a signatory), then the organization ought to be shut down.

Predictably, the Venezuelan representative responded with vitriol, calling Cochez's remarks "an aggression" and insulting him as mentally unstable and "a jerk."

The session was quickly adjourned, as no one witnessing wanted to be further splattered by typical chavista mud-slinging, although not before the Canadian envoy suggested sending an OAS delegation to Venezuela to evaluate the situation.

The U.S. response to the spectacle was hardly inspiring. The U.S. representative said that the U.S. "will not interpret the constitution of Venezuela," which is up to "the people of Venezuela." That certainly stands in stark contrast to the Honduran presidential crisis of 2007, where the U.S. did precisely just that. And, frankly, how the Venezuelan opposition is supposed to make its voice heard when all governing institutions have been gutted and packed with chavistas is not clear. In any case, no one is expecting the U.S. to be the lone voice of criticism, but the alternative requires some diplomatic heavy-lifting in getting other countries to speak out. But, to date, precious little is evident.

Unfortunately, for his troubles in trying to do the right thing, Ambassador Cochez was summarily dismissed from his position and his comments were disavowed. According to a statement from the Panamanian government (whose president once touted himself as the "anti-Chávez), "Panama reiterates that it will continue to respect the internal political processes of states, and, in the case of Venezuela, we are praying for the quick recovery of President Hugo Chávez."

It is doubly unfortunate that the OAS secretary general position is not open until 2015, because Ambassador Cochez exhibits just the qualities you would want in an OAS secretary general.

As for the current occupier of the position, his tenure can be pretty much summed up in a separate interview with the Miami Herald. Asked about the ludicrous situation in which another regional organization, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) -- which purposefully excludes the U.S. and Canada and lists fortifying democracy as a goal -- would be soon turning over its leadership to Cuban dictator Raul Castro, Insulza responded, "The fact that the president of Chile, who is by no means precisely a leftist, hands over CELAC to Raúl Castro shows a new climate of tolerance and understanding in Latin America."

There you have it: an inability to make a distinction between a democratically elected, right-of-center businessman and a left-wing military dictator who shot his way into power fifty years ago and continues to rule through the barrel of a gun. Yes, Mr. Insulza, it does show how far your Latin America has come. Not very.

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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