Venezuela’s Hemispheric Isolation

Venezuela’s National Police uses tear gas and pellet gunshot against student protesters in Caracas. Photo by Andrés E. Azpúrua / CC BY-SA 3.0

On May 18, 2016, Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), released a statement responding to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s accusation of being a foreign agent and a tool of U.S. imperialism. Although the escalation was not the first between Almagro and Maduro, it does come at a crucial time for the Venezuelan government. Venezuela lost a vital ally in Brazil when President Dilma Rousseff was suspended and when on May 13, 2016, Jose Serra, the new Brazilian foreign minister and member of the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSDB), criticized Venezuela’s reaction to Rousseff’s impeachment, which Caracas claimed is a putsch. This was the first time in 13 years that a clash occurred between the Venezuelan and Brazilian foreign ministries.

The retreat of the ‘Pink Tide’, the rise of left-wing governments in Latin America over the past decade, has become clear over the past year and a half. Driven by low commodity and oil prices, Latin American economies have either slowed down or entered recession, while corruption scandals have engulfed governing parties. As such, left-wing governments have seen their power throughout the region hindered. Beginning with the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, the Latin American left has suffered defeats across the hemisphere, from losing control over Venezuela’s National Assembly to the rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed Bolivia’s Evo Morales to run for another presidential term. All of these events were setbacks for Venezuela, which built a web of relationships with left-wing governments and parties over the past decade to augment its foreign policy. Argentina’s turn to the right was a worrying sign.

But it was the impeachment of Brazil’s Rousseff that put the nail in the coffin for Latin America’s left, particularly for the Venezuelan government. Given its political and economic status in Latin America, Brazil’s foreign policy decisions impact intra-regional politics. It was Brazil’s left-wing governments that pushed for the incorporation of Venezuela into Mercosur, the creation of UNASUR and CELAC and the diminishing role of the OAS, particularly the organization’s inter-American democratic and human rights system created to prevent precisely the current government crackdown on protests taking place in Venezuela. But Brazil and other left-wing governments were not the only ones at fault, all of Venezuela’s neighbors, including right-wing governments, were accomplices in the deterioration of the inter-American system set up by the OAS. Driven by economic interests, ideological ties, and security concerns, most Latin American governments failed to speak out against the situation in Venezuela.

With a new government in Brasilia, however, Venezuela find itself isolated in the hemisphere. You only have to look at a regional map to see the rise and fall of Venezuelan foreign policy.

Latin America’s Ideological Shifts – 1999, 2012, and 2016

The map simplifies “left” and “right” governments. Most were center-oriented regimes. Blue - governed by right-wing parties Red - governed by left-wing parties
The map simplifies “left” and “right” governments. Most were center-oriented regimes.
Blue – governed by right-wing parties
Red – governed by left-wing parties

What the map shows is the clear fall from grace of the left-wing parties in the region. At its apex in 2012, left-wing regimes ruled over most of South America, with the exception of Colombia (and Chile for a brief period). Now, however, the left is confined to a number of countries, and will lose power in Peru, where a second round of voting on June 5 will choose between two right-wing leaning candidates. As a result, the Venezuelan government has lost many key allies and could face more international pressure for the deterioration that is taking place in the country.

And it could happen sooner than expected. Secretary General Almagro has said that he is considering activating the OAS’s Democratic Charter, which would lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the organization. Member States would then be pressured to take side between the OAS and Venezuela as a two-thirds vote is needed for the charter’s activation. While the Venezuelan government is unlikely to feel bad for being suspended from the OAS (Caracas considers it an instrument of U.S. hegemony), the implication would be felt as regional governments make their stance on the issue. Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer is likely to support the activation of the Democratic Charter, while Argentina, which currently chairs the OAS Permanent Council, is no fan of the Venezuelan government, having threatened to suspend Venezuela from Mercosur last year (although Argentina has since backtracked and has called for mediation). Other countries, such as Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia, have called for mediation of the Venezuelan crisis, but these governments have clearly lost patience with President Maduro. Argentina’s President Macri will also travel at the end of June to Chile, where he plans to discuss the Venezuela situation with the members of the Pacific Alliance. Furthermore, with both Argentina and Brazil being governed by center-right leaders, regional organizations such as UNASUR, CELAC and Mercosur are unlikely to provide support for the Venezuelan government as they have in the past. In fact, this was seen clearly in the aftermath of Rousseff’s impeachment, where these organizations were unable to organize a coordinated response, showing how critical the positions of Argentina and Brazil are for them to function properly.

Whatever the end result, it is clear that Venezuela has lost ground in the region. Having remained aloof as the country descended into chaos, regional actors are finally reacting as new governments take power and Venezuela’s oil diplomacy collapses due to the drop in oil prices. But while regional attention on the Venezuelan crisis is welcomed, Venezuela’s problems can only be solved by Venezuelans. The international community, however, should prepare for when the Maduro government ends as the country seems more likely to implode given Caracas’ reaction to the recall referendum and protests against scarcity.


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