By Joel D. Hirst
The day was September 11, 2001. In the United States, we were becoming suddenly and painfully aware of the true intentions and the real power of those who revile our freedom and democracy. A world away in Lima, unnoticed and unsung, the delegates of the western hemisphere's thirty four democracies, under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS), were meeting to agree upon the final language of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. This charter represented, at the time, the most far reaching commitment by a multi-lateral organization to mutually promote and protect each other's democratic credentials. It represented the unplanned answer to the brutality of those not content to let others live in peace.
In the almost ten years since the Democratic Charter came into effect, there has never been a challenge to the combined democratic commitment of the hemispheric community like that of Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Time and time again President Chavez has pushed the limits of liberal democracy. With approval from a complicit National Assembly and a co-opted court system he has extended his mandate, centralized power in the executive and waged a successful campaign against private property, basic civil rights and democratic freedoms as enshrined in the very charter that the Chavez government itself signed.
However, this time, Mr. Chavez appears to have pushed things too far. To understand this, some historical perspective is necessary. In December of 2007 Mr. Chavez led the country to yet another national election to modify 69 articles of the 1999 constitution. These modifications represented an alteration of the liberal democratic order, and would have allowed Mr. Chavez to transform Venezuela from a Liberal Democracy to a Socialist State. At the polls, the Venezuelan people rejected these changes and handed Mr. Chavez his first electoral defeat ever. The message was clear; while Chavez himself remained personally popular his attempts to alter Venezuela's democratic order were unwelcome.
Unfortunately, this democratic defeat did not serve as sufficient to dissuade Mr. Chavez and his revolutionaries in their path to alter Venezuela's democracy. Slowly, Chavez and his 95% majority in the National Assembly passed the "organic laws" necessary to implement the 2007 constitutional package despite the Venezuelan people's coherent "no" vote. Slowly, the modifications have been approved via law. However, over time Mr. Chavez ran into trouble. Despite his consistent attempts at subverting the democratic process, the September 2010 National Assembly elections robbed him of his 2/3 majority in congress, essential to pass the "organic laws" necessary to pave the way for his revolutionary state. In response, Chavez decided to rush through the lame-duck congress the final laws to complete his 2007 project (see, for example, my review of Chavez's unconstitutional laws).
At long last it seems that Venezuela's neighbors have taken notice. Smarting from a diplomatic row involving its ambassador designate to Caracas which demonstrated once and for all that the Obama administration's "open hand" strategy was a non-starter, the United States has finally responded. At an event at Brookings Institute, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela stated
that the passage of Venezuela's 2010 laws were an "anti-democratic measure" which violated the Democratic Charter. These are extraordinarily harsh terms for an administration which has been reticent to challenge the Chavez regime.
More importantly, the OAS itself seems to have had enough. In an interview on Friday, January 7, 2011 Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS, parroted
Valenzuela’s comments that the laws passed by the outgoing Venezuelan Assembly are "completely contrary" to the Democratic Charter. These comments have set the stage for a confrontation with Mr. Chavez.
The statements by both the US Assistant Secretary, as well as the OAS Secretary General have prompted a flurry of speculation in Washington. Most importantly, the question is whether the agenda of the OAS Permanent Council will at long last include a discussion of the Venezuelan situation, in an attempt to deal with Venezuela's faltering democratic credentials. While a discussion would be only a first step in holding Venezuela accountable for its anti-democratic actions, it would nevertheless be important in standing up for the Democratic Charter and exposing anti-democratic behavior in the region.
For the Obama administration, this is an important - watershed moment. The OAS appears to be willing to discuss Venezuela's faltering democracy at a forum of its peers, but only if it receives support from a large group of democracies in the region. The administration, always the proponent of multi-literalism, has a perfect opportunity to see this philosophy put to action. As such, the Obama administration should embrace a discussion with zeal and support all efforts by the Secretary General and other member states to build a consensus which exposes Venezuela's democratic shortcomings. This would not only lend credibility to the OAS, but would boost the reputation of the Obama administration in the region. Most importantly it would finally allow the hemispheric community to discuss the status of Venezuela's faltering democracy in the hopes of serving as the guarantors of freedom to Venezuela's distressed citizenry.Joel D. Hirst is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington where he is researching Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). He was USAID Acting Country Representative in Venezuela from 2004 to 2008. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.joelhirst.com, www.twitter.com/joelhirst or his public facebook page