[This response was published yesterday on the Venezueladialogue.com blog as part of a discussion of the question: “Is the OAS Playing a Constructive Role on Venezuela? What Should It Be Doing Differently?”]

I appreciate Mark Weisbrot and Steve Ellner’s replies to my response to the forum-organizer’s question on the OAS role in Venezuela. I highly value spaces such as this one because I think progressives should feel a special sense of urgency to analyze and debate a left-project-gone-wrong like Chavismo. Not doing so allows the right-wing to control the agenda and stamp what is going on in Venezuela in a way that will complicate other left projects in the future.

The disagreement between Mark, Steve, Miguel Tinker Salas and me is an interesting one because we agree on most of the basic facts, but work with different political and theoretical perspectives and so frame them differently. For instance, Mark says, based on Miguel’s recounting of the history of the OAS:

“We are arguing that the OAS is at this moment controlled by powerful interests who are using it to help topple a government, for political reasons, not to improve the human rights situation in Venezuela.”

I could actually agree with this sentence if it were edited in the following way to give it a little more realistic view of the situation.

“We are arguing that the OAS is at this moment AND FOR THE FORSEEABLE FUTURE controlled by powerful COMPETING interests who are using it to help CHALLENGE OR SUPPORT a government, for political reasons WHICH INCLUDE IMPROVING the human rights situation in Venezuela.”

First, of course the OAS is the site of powerful political interests. The idea that that there could somehow be “neutral,” “honest,” or “well-intentioned” mediation is simply naïve and uninformed by a century and a half of critiques of rationalist, foundationalist philosophy. What would “neutral” mean? Actors without political interests? Actors without cultures? Actors without histories? Who will designate these neutral actors? From what criteria? The same can be said for the demand for “honest” and “well-intentioned” actors. These are to be determined by which criteria? Judged by whom? There are no self-evident criteria, nor are there judges speaking Esperanto that will fall from the sky to resolve our conflicts. There are only human agreements based on arguments, consolidated into institutions. These institutions have histories and are inevitably the sites of struggle among unequal actors.

But in most cases, and certainly in this case, these political interests are competing. In the OAS discussion on Venezuela there is a bloc of countries that includes the US and with whom we can assume the US is engaging in power politics using its economic, political, and military resources to generate support. And there is a group of countries over which Venezuela has a large degree of influence: the Caricom countries that have benefitted from Petrocaribe and the countries that form part of the ALBA strategic bloc.

In terms of resources with which to influence allies, the US clearly has the advantage over Venezuela. But in terms of the structure of the OAS, it would seem Venezuela has the advantage. The one country, one vote OAS system gives small countries an amplified voice. So St. Lucia, with a population of under 200,000 people, has the same voting power as Brazil, with a population of nearly 208 million. And St. Vincent, with a population of 110,000, has one vote just like the US, with a population of more than 321 million. As a result of the OAS rules, the pro-Venezuela block has been able to hold off the Venezuela-critical block, despite having a fraction of the population and resources.

Indeed, usually when I have this discussion it is with right-wing supporters of unilateral US measures like sanctions. Their argument is that the OAS is structurally flawed and will never act with respect to Venezuela because of its petro-diplomacy and therefore unilateral measures are justified.

And that is really what is at stake here. Despite their inevitably flawed and uninspiring histories, multilateral spaces with clear rules and obligatory, public debate, are always going to be better than bilateral conflict that depends simply on guns and money. It is unlikely that the OAS will be able to come up with any sort of consensual plan of action. Even if it does, Venezuela will simply reject it. However, the diplomatic process, discussion and debate are extraordinarily important. They force the US to engage in diplomacy with countries in the region, make their arguments and listen to others. They force Venezuela to do the same. The process of diplomacy, discussion, and debate bring out new information, new understandings and new areas of consensus.

All of this could lead to some other multilateral initiative among a “group of friends” that could be key in facilitating negotiation in the Venezuelan conflict, as the Contadora Group did in Central America in the 1980s. The Contadora countries had a variety of interests of their own, not all of which were noble. But they succeeded in forming a counter-hegemonic bloc, that developed a strategy at odds with the goals of the United States. If we were to follow the criteria promoted by Weisbrot et al, we would have to reject the Contadora initiative because the motivations of these countries were not completely honest or well-intentioned.

It is good to be clear on what we are talking about here. The OAS does not have the power to “topple” Venezuela. In fact it does not even have the power to “intervene” in Venezuela. It only has the power to withhold its legitimacy. States become part of multilateral institutions not only to have spaces to engage their peers, but because these institutions provide them with added democratic legitimacy vis-a-vis their populations, competing authorities, and competing states. Venezuela forms part of the OAS of its own volition, signed on to the Democratic Charter in 2001, and even supported the candidacy of Luis Almagro for Secretary General. It is only now, when it is the focus of criticism, that the Venezuela’s government has decided to withdraw.

None of this obliges an uncritical backing of Secretary General Luis Almagro. As I mentioned previously, in my view he jumped the gun by about a year, and failed to do the groundwork necessary to develop a consensus. More recently, his statements regarding Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López being guilty of “crimes against humanity” were not only unstrategic, they were criticized as inaccurate by the Venezuelan human rights groups in best position to judge. Almagro successfully put Venezuela on the agenda of the region, but in my view his handling of the Venezuela case has impeded the formation of a consensus in the OAS. In any case, at this point his role is secondary. He put the issue on the agenda, but it is the Permanent Council and the General Assembly that can actually make decisions about Venezuela and the Democratic Charter.

Nor does supporting the current OAS discussion oblige one to regard the OAS as the preeminent multilateral space for discussion of the Venezuela crisis. I had high hopes for the CELAC discussion, thinking that without the presence of the US, discussion of a solution might take off. But CELAC member-states seemed to prefer the OAS as a space for this problem. UNASUR has made some noises, but does not seem to have any plans. It is the OAS that is in position to hold a discussion and form consensus in a relevant time frame.

Whatever forum the discussion takes place, it will inevitably be political. But that does not mean it will not include human rights advocacy. Seeing “the political” as purely instrumental and cynical is an old-fashioned fiction. Seeing sincere human rights advocacy as non-political is just as naive. Most politics contain a mixture of self-interest and moral interests, and the moral interests are often determinative. Political actors can be politically interested in human rights insofar as they think it requires power to actually defend them. There is no contradiction there. This will be true of the OAS, CELAC, UNASUR or any other imaginable forum.

On a final point, I am glad to hear that nobody in this discussion is arguing against the idea that “basic democratic rights are ‘universal’ human rights.” However, let me point out that my friend Steve Ellner’s most recent comment begins with the idea that invoking the Democratic Charter on Venezuela “would be justified in the case of a clear-cut systematic and flagrant violation of human rights,” but that this is not now the case in Venezuela.

How is it possible that a government that has postponed two elections and is now violating the Constitution by aiming to rewrite that Constitution without first asking people if that is what they want (polls show they don’t), is not engaging in “systematic and flagrant violation of human rights?” What is more, the electoral bases of the Constituent Assembly are so stilted that they will deliver Chavismo a majority of the delegates with just 20-30% of the vote. This Constituent Assembly is not based on any popular demand, but on the Maduro government’s desire to change the rules instead of facing electoral defeat. This isn’t a flagrant violation, it’s an obnoxious violation of democratic rights.

In Steve’s statement we can see the left’s long-term willingness to cast a blind eye towards violations of electoral rights as long as these violations are part of a supposedly progressive project. The same tendency can be seen in the Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales statement that came out at the end of April, which is concerned about violence, but does not even mention elections. The truly unique historical achievement of Chavismo con Chávez was that it pushed forward with a leftist revolution through electoral democracy, threading the needle not once, but time and again. Chavismo con Maduro has betrayed that achievement, turning the movement into a crass power grab oriented more towards the well-being of governing elites than the well-being of the popular sectors whose hopes for a better world have been dashed once again.