WASHINGTON, D.C. – After an 8 hour session -- which the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) voted to hold behind closed doors -- the O.A.S. voted not to discuss Venezuela's increasingly violent political crisis.
"Today’s actions by the Maduro regime at the O.A.S. are despicable,” said U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. “These bullies have shown that they’re willing to kill in order to silence popular protests in their country, and now they’ve shown that they are happy to silence in the U.S. those who demand respect for human rights at an international body tasked with defending democracy.”
Venezuela opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado had been invited by Panama to be part of their delegation to the O.A.S. so that she would be able to tell the O.A.S. what was going on in Venezuela, but her appearance was essentially blocked by a majority of O.A.S. members, most of whom are political allies, acolytes and/or discounted oil, aid and trade clients of petroleum-rich Venezuela.
In what was widely viewed as an attempt to prevent Machado from addressing the body, member states voted 22 to 11 (with one abstention) to bar the media from the day's session -- a rare event for the organization whose meetings are normally open.
The U.S., Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay and Chile all supported a public session and Machado's appearance.
Venezuela, on the other hand, drew support from allies and ideological sympathizers such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Argentina, as well as the support of more than a dozen Caribbean countries, mostly small islands who depend on Venezuela’s subsidized shipments of oil. The Caribbean states, with the exception of Barbados which abstained, voted as a block to keep the session private.
Venezuela was also supported by neighboring Brazil, whose companies make a great deal of money from trade with Venezuela, from building projects to exports of tons of chicken, rice and coffee.
Brazil’s Ambassador Breno Dias da Costa said he voted to make the meeting private to avoid the O.A.S. becoming an external platform for the Venezuelan situation.
After several hours of debate, delegates in the closed-door session voted down Panama's attempt to discuss Venezuela as a formal part of the OAS's agenda. But after several more hours of wrangling, Machado was able to briefly speak to the delegates during a part of the meeting dealing with ad hoc issues, a top O.A.S. official said.
"Those who today would not let me speak know in their hearts that we were right and they fear that the truth be known," said Machado. "It is a great achievement and I am honored."
Machado compared Venezuela’s efforts to prevent the policy debate to the same tactics used by the Venezuela government in Venezuela.
"The ambassadors lived today what political leaders live in Venezuela: the intention to silence and bury the truth via fear, censure and outrage," Machado said.
Panama, which had invited Machado to be a part of their delegation, said that they would keep her as part of the delegation so that she would have another opportunity to speak.
Machado planned to request the application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the convening of a meeting of the Permanent Council of Foreign Ministers for the "crisis of democracy in Venezuela" and a Resolution calling for the release of political prisoners and an immediate end to repression.
"Venezuela has dramatically altered the democratic order," Machado told a press conference after the debates. "Today the world recognizes the Venezuelan regime as a dictatorship."
Venezuelan Ambassador Roy Chaderton said that he was pleased that Machado could not speak, which he argued, confirmed the statement issued by the OAS on March 7 expressing solidarity with the government of Nicolas Maduro, which only Panama, the United States and Canada voted against.
“The government of Panama commendably is seeking to allow Maria Corina to speak about the human rights violations occurring in Venezuela,” said U.S. Representative Ros-Lehtinen. “Not surprisingly, the Nicaraguan representative moved to make the meeting private, leading to the press and general public being kicked out. Then the Venezuelan representative successfully moved to remove from the agenda any discussion of the crisis in Venezuela, preventing Maria Corina from speaking up to this moment. This shameless obstruction shows how the OAS has been hijacked by repressive leaders and is miserably failing in fulfilling its original mission. “
O.A.S. Secretary General José Miguel Insulza defended the organization, saying that "the OAS can be efficient if the majority agrees on a course of action. But if there are debates like those that exist today, neither the O.A.S. nor CELAC nor other bodies can be effective because they are organizations of states, not supranationals. "
During her press conference, Machado complained that Venezuelan authorities have arrested opponents for only exercising their right to protest, including two opposition mayors.
On Tuesday, the Venezuela government turned its sights on Machado and the National Assembly began withdrawing immunity from Machado, so that she, too, can be jailed.
Maduro blames Machado and opposition leader Leopoldo López, a Harvard educated former mayor of a Caracas municipality, responsible for organizing protests that have been ongoing since last month around the country, with more than 33 dead as the government sent troops and armed government supporters to attack the protestors. Lopez has been jailed without bail since February 18.
Maduro says the demonstrations are part of an opposition plan to promote a coup in coordination with the U.S. They started in San Cristobal after a student was raped on campus and students protested the insecurity. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The government clamped down on the protests, jailing innocent student leaders and the protests spread around the country as rampant crime, 57% inflation, a rapidly devaluing currency, widespread shortages of food and basic goods continued to rock the country of 28 million. Instead of listening to the problems and trying to resolve them, over 1600 demonstrators have been arrested and 33 killed.
Caracas broke diplomatic and commercial relations with Panama this month for having requested a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Venezuela. Maduro then said that he would not pay Venezuela’s debt to Panama – estimated at as high as $2 billion.
“What does the Maduro regime have to hide? Diosdado Cabello – one of Venezuela’s most dangerous goons – has threatened that Maria Corina may be arrested and charged with bogus accusations just like with Leopoldo Lopez and local mayors,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “Responsible nations in the Hemisphere must act to hold Maduro regime officials accountable for the atrocities they’ve committed. Secretary of State John Kerry has illustrated his willingness to work through the O.A.S. body to resolve the crisis in Venezuela but today’s shameful display of autocratic actions once again reaffirms that the U.S. must lead to protect human rights and we cannot rely on this broken body to stand up for democratic ideals.”