Why Does the OAS Defend the Rule of Law in Honduras but Not Venezuela?

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Friday, July 24, 2009

LATIN AMERICAN diplomats remain preoccupied with the political crisis in Honduras, which has been teetering between a negotiated solution that would conditionally restore ousted President Manuel Zelaya to office and an escalation of conflict that would play into the hands of anti-democratic forces around the region. While the drama drags on, those forces continue to advance in other countries, unremarked on by some of the same governments that rushed to condemn Mr. Zelaya's ouster. So it's worth reporting on a meeting that took place Tuesday at the Organization of American States headquarters in Washington between OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and three elected Venezuelan leaders who, like Mr. Zelaya, have been deprived of their powers and threatened with criminal prosecution.

The three are Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and the governors of two states, Pablo Pérez of Zulia and César Pérez Vivas of Tachira. All three won election in November, along with several other opposition leaders. But since then, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has used decrees, a rubber-stamp parliament and a politically compromised legal system to strip the officials of control over key services and infrastructure.

Mr. Insulza, a Chilean socialist who has been flamboyant in his defense of Mr. Zelaya, listened to the Venezuelans' account. But the OAS leader insisted that there was nothing he could do about Mr. Chávez's actions, even under the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which was adopted by all 34 active OAS members in 2001. This month, Mr. Insulza helped spur the OAS to suspend Honduras on the grounds that it had violated the charter. But in the case of Mr. Chávez's stripping power from the governors and mayors, Mr. Insulza said, "I can't say whether it is bad or good." His authority, he said, is limited to "trying to establish bridges between the parties."

That is not how Mr. Insulza handled the case of Honduras, of course. Far from promoting dialogue, the secretary general refused to negotiate or even speak with the president elected by the Honduran National Congress to replace Mr. Zelaya. Instead he joined in a Venezuelan-orchestrated attempt to force Mr. Zelaya's return that, predictably, led to violence. Now, with an attempted mediation by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias stalled, Mr. Zelaya is again threatening to enter the country without an agreement. Don't expect the OAS chief to dissuade him.

Still, Mr. Insulza has a point. The weakness of the Democratic Charter is that it protects presidents from undemocratic assault but does not readily allow OAS intervention in cases where the executive himself is responsible for violating the constitutional order -- as Mr. Zelaya did before his ouster. The Honduras crisis provides an opportunity for the Obama administration to seek changes in those rules. If the administration is to depend on organizations such as the OAS to advance its policies in Latin America, it must push it to counter attacks on democracy whenever and wherever they occur.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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