The Venezuelan crisis has put the OAS back in the news with a debate over whether and how the hemispheric organization should assist the country to overcome its deep political conflict and humanitarian crisis.  Secretary General Luis Almagro’s call for an urgent meeting under Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter  and his 132 page report documenting an “alteration of the constitutional regime” have generated much debate, but also some confusion, over what exactly the hemisphere should and can do to collectively protect democracy in Venezuela.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter was signed in Lima, Peru on September 11, 2001 – the same day the World Trade Towers were attacked in New York.  Secretary of State Colin Powell stayed in Lima to urge an immediate agreement on the text of the Charter and signed it before returning to Washington that day. The Democratic Charter was itself the product of the Fujimori government’s abuses of power in Peru starting with the dissolution in Congress in 1992 and ending with an unconstitutional run for a third term of office in 2000.

Peruvians proposed the Democratic Charter to be able to combat not only threats to elected governments in the form of military coups, but also abuses of power by those elected governments themselves.  Thus, they added the concept of “alteration of the constitutional regime impairing the democratic order” to the previously accepted concept of “interruption of the democratic order”, as a trigger for hemispheric reaction.

The Democratic Charter spells out essential elements of representative democracy, including the separation of powers and independence of branches, human rights, elections, rule of law and transparency.  If one of those elements is violated, the Charter lays out a roadmap for the hemisphere to help a country restore the democratic order.

The first use of the Democratic Charter was in reaction to the short-lived coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002, when the OAS foreign ministers condemned the alteration of the constitutional regime and sent the Secretary General on a fact-finding mission to help restore democracy.  Article 17 says that a country at risk can itself request assistance, as the Nicaraguan president did in 2005 when the Congress was attempting to impeach him in a political contest.  Article 20 says that any member state or the Secretary General can call a meeting of the Permanent Council (ambassadors to the OAS) if they view an alteration of the democratic order, that is, the violation of one of the essential elements mentioned above.

The Permanent Council then assesses the situation and decides with a majority vote if an alteration has taken place and what action to take.  That action might be diplomatic initiatives like offering “good offices,” i.e. efforts to facilitate dialogue or mediation, and if the situation is not resolved, then calling for a special meeting of the General Assembly (the foreign ministers).  The General Assembly can decide to continue diplomatic initiatives.  If at any point the General Assembly decides the situation is unresolvable and there is an interruption of the democratic order, it can enact its most severe sanction – suspend the country from membership with a two-thirds vote.

The Secretary General’s call for a special meeting of the OAS Permanent Council to assess the alteration of the constitutional order in Venezuela detailed in his report is the first time a Secretary General has invoked the Democratic Charter alleging violations by the government.  After a decade of paralysis with a divided OAS unable to reach decisions in its tradition of consensus decision-making, Almagro is asserting his authority and trying to get the OAS to practice the collective defense of democracy enshrined its Democratic Charter.

He has also broken tradition by inviting another branch of the government – the Venezuelan National Assembly President, to address the Permanent Council in addition to the Venezuelan foreign minister who spoke last week.  Regional NGOs have long called for regional organizations like the OAS and UNASUR to open their debates to hear fuller perspectives when sectors of a country are alleging abuse of executive power, rather than act as a club of presidents solely defending each other.

The June 1 debate over a resolution regarding the Venezuela crisis—a separate initiative from Almagro’s invoking the Democratic Charter, showed how difficult it will be for the governments of the hemisphere to come to any agreement.  It took two days to arrive at a resolution simply supporting the efforts of three ex-presidents sponsored by UNASUR to start a dialogue.

Still, the long debate with Venezuela’s active participation in it, demonstrates that the Maduro government does care about its international legitimacy.  Even without invoking the Democratic Charter, the resolution advocated the first step laid out in that Charter to address democratic crises – diplomatic initiatives to help resolve them.

And most importantly, the OAS, displaced in recent years by UNASUR as the preeminent actor to address South American crises, is closing ranks with UNASUR.  A united international front is crucial to encourage both sides to sit at the table in serious discussions. The alternative would allow Venezuelan actors to forum-shop among international actors as each seeks their own international champions.  A divided international community could thus end up enabling  Venezuelan leaders on all sides to delay urgent problem-solving, while the Venezuelan people plunge further into misery.

* Distinguished University Professor, Georgia State University