The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Organization of American States decides to have a serious talk with Caracas

Government supporters and militia march in a rally against the United States and possible sanctions that the Organization of American States could apply to the government of Venezuela, in Caracas on  Tuesday. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Francisco Toro is executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles news site and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions.

On Tuesday, the Western Hemisphere’s responsible adults decided to stage an intervention. Members of the Organization of American States (OAS) confronted Venezuela with some unwelcome realities. Faced with its record of deepening authoritarianism, the countries of the Americas voted by 20 to 11 to open a formal debate on whether Venezuela is democratic enough to remain a full member of the Inter-American System, which is designed to safeguard human rights within each of the member states.

Trying to change the behavior of someone in catastrophic denial is always a fraught exercise, and Venezuela responded with predictable rage. Along with a dwindling gaggle of apologists (Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua … well, actually, that’s pretty much it), Venezuela’s diplomats ranted against the proceeding itself, saying no one had any business meddling in its internal affairs and hurling insults at any country that dared to mention its authoritarian drift. In a word, denial.

Venezuela said that by daring to question Bolivarian socialism, Mexico deserved the wall the Trump administration wants to build. Brazil, it argued, has no legitimate government following last year’s impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (one of its last allies). Not even Canada, apparently, has any moral right to criticize its regime as far as Caracas is concerned. And, of course, the Venezuelans repeatedly slammed the OAS itself as a neocolonial vestige of U.S. imperialism.

Faced with serious allegations about its slide to dictatorship, Venezuela resorted to a variety of counter-accusations couched in shockingly undiplomatic terms. The regime did all it could to drag the staid, buttoned-down world of hemispheric diplomacy down to the usual level of Venezuelan state propaganda.

As a pro-democracy Venezuelan, I was almost glad to see how the placid environment of the OAS meeting threw the lunacy of the regime into stark relief. Back home, this kind of over-the-top rhetoric has become such a part of everyday life that you barely notice it anymore. It’s normal — or what passes for normal in a dictatorship. But I do sometimes worry that the rest of the region hasn’t quite registered how strange and aggressive the regime’s worldview has become.

There was little danger of that at the OAS on Tuesday. Every word coming out of the Venezuelan delegation confirmed what we’ve known for some time: that a bizarre kind of political cult has taken control of the government in Caracas and that Venezuelans need help if we’re ever to rid ourselves of it.

Hours earlier, back in Venezuela, the regime’s rubber-stamp supreme court was busy confirming its critics’ darkest warnings. In a staggeringly broad decision, the court effectively lifted parliamentary immunity from all opposition lawmakers and suggested they all be tried for high treason. It didn’t matter at all that these lawmakers had won a decisive, two-thirds majority of seats in parliamentary elections just 16 months ago. By urging the OAS to hold Venezuela accountable for breaking democratic norms, the court declared, they had betrayed their country.

The president’s puppet court went on to “order” the president to use his emergency powers to take all measures necessary to prevent any “internal disturbance.” The decision lifts any constraint on the executive branch. If anyone at the OAS had been in doubt, the morning’s ruling made it crystal clear: The judiciary is an undisguised agent of the executive branch, meaning that democracy is dead.

Tuesday’s OAS session opened what will be a long debate. Even by the standards of multilateral organizations, the OAS has a reputation for indecisiveness. Governments fear the precedent they may set by passing judgment on their neighbors’ internal affairs, no matter how badly those neighbors behave.

A two-thirds vote would be needed to suspend Venezuela from the organization. Such an outcome would have little in the way of practical effects, but it would set off a regime crisis in Caracas all the same. The governments of the Americas would be officially declaring Venezuela to be the hemisphere’s second outright dictatorship. That’s serious.

We’re not quite there yet. It will take the vote of 24 countries to suspend Venezuela, and just 20 voted to open a formal discussion about Venezuela. Even if those 20 account for 90 percent of the hemisphere’s population, the OAS’s one-country, one-vote rule means Venezuela could still avoid sanctions if it can retain the loyalty of enough Caribbean island microstates.

Still, for all its bureaucratic torpor, the OAS took a genuinely significant step forward Tuesday. The mechanism being used to censure Caracas was originally designed to ward off the classic Latin American coup d’état, not to discipline governments that, like Venezuela’s, have turned dictatorial after reaching power through the ballot box.

What happens next will show whether Inter-American institutions can really serve to champion democracy, or whether they’ll remain what cynics have always charged they were: an excuse for sitting governments to do whatever they want. In its slow, lumbering fashion, under the admirable leadership of a far-sighted secretary general, the OAS is starting to rise to the challenge.