Latin America Must Act

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Venezuelan flag María Alejandra Mora / CC BY-SA 3.0
Can the government led by Nicolas Maduro survive the wave of street protests that have spread throughout Venezuela over the past two weeks? Will he make any concessions to the protesters? The answers are unclear. But what is clear until now is whatever happens in Venezuela will not be because of any pressure applied by the country’s neighbors. Latin American governments have given Maduro a virtual free hand as he deals with the most significant crisis since Hugo Chavez’s death a year ago. That is unfortunate. There are ample reasons for regional pressure and condemnation: the government’s heavy-handed tactics against the student and opposition protesters; violence committed by government-supported armed gangs known as colectivos (already resulting in eight deaths and dozens injured); even more severe restrictions on freedom of expression; and political persecution of opposition leaders like Leopoldo Lopez. The responses have ranged from strong support for Maduro – expressed by the other ALBA governments and Argentina – to calls for calm and dialogue with the opposition. The OAS was unable to reach a consensus and act. Statements by CELAC, UNASUR and especially MERCOSUR have been weak. Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera perhaps took the strongest stand, but it was tempered (and he only has a few weeks left in office). Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos urged the Maduro government to meet with the opposition and “insure the stability of the country and respect for institutions and fundamental freedoms.” Even those mild remarks provoked an angry response by Maduro. The regional reaction is unfortunate but not surprising. In recent years, there has been less and less will to condemn violations of democratic and human rights principles. Latin America’s fragmented political landscape is an obstacle for collective action in defense of democracy. Under Chavez’s rule, Venezuela, closely aligned with Cuba, generated sympathy among sectors of the Latin American left. The ideological factor – including an anti-US posture – still matters. Every political leader today wants to avoid openly confronting the left. In some countries a tough, anti-Maduro stand could risk fueling street demonstrations in their own countries. In others, such a stand could have economic costs. In general, governments would rather not irritate Maduro, who is seen (as was Chavez) as unpredictable. Some country would also have to take the lead, and Brazil – for all the reasons noted -- is not prepared to do so. Mexico, which is now trying to build closer ties with South America, also is not ready. Although President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have publicly expressed concern about the serious situation in Venezuela, the US government is reluctant to take a more forceful stand on its own. Acting without Venezuela’s neighbors, Washington has little leverage and few options. Given the US’s unfortunate history of interventions in the region, any unilateral action would only strengthen Maduro. It is a pity Latin American governments are not getting more involved in the earlier stage of this crisis, when it might be possible to help avoid a more violent scenario. Instead they remain on the sidelines, watching as things deteriorate.

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