SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — As Venezuela teeters on the brink of economic collapse, its problems are roiling the Organization of American States, an institution that faces its own dire financial crisis under a new leader who is pushing it to focus more on human rights and democracy.
The Washington-based OAS convened its general assembly here this week amid a spiraling economic and political crisis in Venezuela that has brought the transformation to the forefront.
Secretary General Luis Almagro has accused the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro of violating the organization’s Democratic Charter requiring members to uphold democracy, and OAS member states are deeply divided between those that support Almagro and those that see his charge as an unwarranted intervention in Venezuela’s domestic affairs.
As Almagro, a former Uruguayan foreign minister, has set in motion a procedure that could lead to the suspension of Venezuela from the OAS, he and Maduro have hurled insults at each other on Twitter and in a series of open letters. In a broadside Wednesday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Darcy Rodriguez told the OAS General Assembly that Almagro was leading a “lynching” of her government, and she received a noticeable round of applause when she urged the members to limit his actions.
Almagro confidants say his efforts to push back against growing authoritarianism in Venezuela reflect both principle and the financial realities of the OAS. With many member states in arrears in contributions, the organization’s $82 million budget may have to bear further cuts of $12 million or more. That has forced Almagro to start trimming some extraneous programs so he can train needed money on what he considers the “core competencies” of human rights and democracy.
“He’s saying, ‘If we’re not going to do this, what are we going to do?’” said Daniel Restrepo, a former Obama administration adviser on Latin America who now advises Almagro. “He’s not going to shy away from the problems. He didn’t pick this forum. Circumstances dictated it. If the OAS is serious about defending democracy, it has to be done where democracy is going off the rails.”
Few governments in the OAS hope it comes to a suspension of Venezuela’s membership. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday that the United States prefers a resolution through a dialogue mediated by three former Latin American presidents, and he backed calls for a referendum to recall Maduro. So far, however, Maduro has said there will be no referendum before next year, a critical date because, under Venezuelan law, any recall after January would result in his vice president assuming the job.
While Almagro’s stance has won him kudos in some quarters, it also has undercut his position among some member countries that are allied with Venezuela’s socialist government. Rodriguez, the foreign minister, pointedly called out Almagro’s salary of $8,000 a month, saying the princely sum by Latin American standards is payment “to act against Venezuela.”
In some ways, Venezuela may not be his biggest worry.
When Almagro became secretary general last year, he took over the helm of an organization that has been running in the red for decades. Although democracy was one of its founding principles, over time the OAS had taken on other popular missions, such as economic development and a scholarship program. Now, Almagro wants to pare back some of those programs and launch new initiatives such as a school of governance to teach ethics and accountability to young Latin American politicians.
To do that, he needs to get the budget on a sustainable course. Today, many of the 34 OAS member countries in good standing have not paid their dues for many years. Venezuela is one of the biggest debtor nations. So is Brazil, although it recently paid its $4 million share for 2014. The United States contributes 60 percent of the total OAS budget and is by far the largest contributor to related organizations such as the autonomous Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The tiny commission, with just 78 employees charged with investigating human rights abuses in more than three dozen countries, is a top priority for Almagro, an adviser said. Among the high-profile cases the commission has investigated over the years are the mass abduction and disappearance of 43 students in Mexico in 2014, the disappearances of civilians during Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, and conditions for detainees at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Every year, the human rights commission receives 2,000 new petitions for help.
James Cavallaro, one of its seven commissioners, said 40 percent of the small staff will have to be laid off by the end of July if the organization does not get guarantees of contributions to fund its $9 million budget. He said he had secured some commitments, but not enough, during the OAS meeting in Santo Domingo.
As Almagro shifts the organization’s focus to human rights and democracy, however, he risks alienating some member states that find the spotlight uncomfortable. He so far has sloughed off the critics.
“The secretary general is basically positioning himself as the standard bearer, the watchdog, for democracy and human rights,” said an adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the controversy. “There’s a large gap between principle and the reality of everyday life in Latin America. Maybe other things will have to go.”