Drums of War or Pipes of Peace?

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro has called on his followers to march to the drums of war against a political plot, allegedly backed by the United States, to provoke the overthrow of his increasingly unpopular authoritarian regime. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos is cautiously testing a partial cease-fire in the conflict with leftist FARC guerrillas in the hopes of clinching a peace deal ending five decades of warfare that has cost 220,000 lives. The contrast could not be greater, and the different ways Venezuela and Colombia view the options of war and peace reveal a deep contradiction in Latin America over how to respond to violations of basic human rights and democratic political guarantees.

The Obama administration has stepped into this fray, predictably on the side of human rights. In a high-level statement last week, the United States suspended US entry visas for seven prominent Venezuelan government officials and declared that the Maduro regime’s repressive political conduct represented a “serious threat” to the United States. Whatever the good intentions behind this exaggerated assertion, President Obama’s words have served as a pretext for Maduro to declare that his supporters, including important elements of the Venezuelan armed forces, have to mobilize against the threat of a US military invasion. In much of Latin America, this nationalist posturing is accepted by the political left as a realistic “anti-imperialist” position. This may seem ridiculous, but it is Maduro’s attempt to imitate the propaganda used for decades by his political mentor, Fidel Castro, against the purported threat of a US invasion of Cuba. In both Cuba and Venezuela, this propaganda line provides the basis for repressive measures against any political opposition critical of the regime.

There is a double dose of irony for the Obama administration in this situation. On one side, the US has been reaping the benefits in Latin America of being a solid supporter of President Santos in his peace offensive. Negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas have been taking place for more than two years in Havana, with the intermediation of Norway. Santos has received numerous international accolades and promises of generous economic aid to Colombia if a peace agreement is reached. The US has provided Colombia with billions of dollars in military equipment and training in support of the most successful counterinsurgency process in Latin America. This US role has been essential to bringing the guerrillas to the peace negotiations. The FARC leaders still refuse to surrender their arms and submit to Colombian justice for scores of homicides, kidnappings, and other crimes like using minors as combatants and operating billion-dollar networks of international drug trafficking. Yet a reciprocal cease-fire is emerging as a prelude to peace, and Santos could soon be a hero figure in Latin America, where Colombia has the majority support of the 34 democratic countries that make up the Organization of American States (OAS), which includes the US and Canada.

Yet this regional group, founded in 1948, has been unable to mount a majority to support a protest against Venezuela’s repression of the vocal opposition to Maduro. The arrest of opposition leaders and the confiscation of goods and private property are direct violations of the democratic charter of the OAS, as well as the so-called Market of the South (Mercosur), a customs union between Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The OAS is paralyzed and silent because the so-called Bolivarian group, created by Venezuela and Cuba, has succeeded in organizing another regional group called UNASUR, that excludes the US and Canada.

The OAS stages a meeting of heads of state every two years called the Council of the Americas. The next meeting of the council is in Panama in April, and Obama is expected to attend, along with many other presidents, including Maduro and Raúl Castro of Cuba, Fidel’s brother. At the last council meeting, in 2011 at Cartagena, Colombia, a large majority of the Latin participants voted to include Cuba, which was excluded from the OAS in 1962 after forming an alliance with the Soviet Union. Cuba lived off that deal until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Cuba then turned for vital oil supplies and economic aid to Venezuela, which is now being harassed by the United States as a violator of human rights.

But Obama shifted US policy on Cuba last year and opened a bilateral negotiating process leading to full diplomatic relations and relaxation of the economic isolation of the small Cuban economy. This move was clearly vital for the Castro regime, which has been dependent on Venezuela for oil and subsidies. For the US and its millions of Cuban refugees, Obama has presented his decision to normalize relations as a long-term strategy to restore political freedom in Cuba. But his diplomatic move was also clearly timed to improve US relations with Latin America on the eve of the new presidential conclave of the Americas in Panama by removing the US economic boycott of Cuba. The problem is that Venezuela is now the big political issue facing the US, not Cuba. This leads to ambiguity, and many Latin American countries hesitate to condemn the Maduro regime for human rights violations. Why Venezuela, they ask, and not Cuba?

In the US Congress, Republican majorities are also asking why the Washington is footing 60 percent of the annual OAS budget of over $450 million when it is stymied by a minority countries, led by Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, in adopting resolutions condemning violators of human and political rights. The OAS elects a new secretary general this week. The winner is expected to be Luis Delgado, a former foreign minister of Uruguay, who is backed by the leftist Bolivarian group. This makes it even more likely that the US Congress will pass a bill cutting the US contribution to the OAS to less than 50 percent. 

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