Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

AMERICAS: OAS Strengthened by Response to Venezuelan Coup

Andrés Cañizález

CARACAS, Apr 17 2002 (IPS) - The Organisation of American States (OAS) has emerged stronger from the political crisis in Venezuela, in which it immediately demanded respect for the country’s Constitution, but the United States, a heavyweight in the organisation, was put in an uncomfortable position when it emerged that it had prior contacts with those who tried to overthrow President Hugo Chávez.

OAS Secretary-General César Gaviria concluded a two-day visit Wednesday to Caracas, where he emphasised the bicontinental alliance’s “commitment to democracy”.

This commitment, he said, requires rejecting “actions that attempt to rupture the constitutional line” in any member country.

The OAS, which in the past has been criticised for being slow and lacking forcefulness in reacting to coups or irregular institutional situations in its member countries, approved the Inter-American Democratic Charter in Lima last September.

The Charter has undergone trial by fire with last week’s crisis in Venezuela.

Chávez was removed from office Friday by his top military command, and for nearly 48 hours was replaced business leader Pedro Carmona. Saturday, several military garrisons throughout the country refused to recognise Carmon’s authority and demanded the reinstatement of constitutional authority.

In his brief time at the country’s helm, Carmona attempted to dissolve Parliament and the Supreme Court, as well as other government bodies, and self-declared the authority to remove governors and mayors, despite the fact that they were democratically elected.

Before he returned to power Sunday, Chávez was held incommunicado and was moved from military base to military base. The sectors of the military that backed the coup publicly announced that the president had signed his resignation.

The situation triggered an immediate declaration from the presidents of the 13 countries of the Rio Group, the top Latin American inter-governmental forum, which was meeting in Costa Rica at the time, and demanded urgent action from the OAS.

Gaviria arrived in Caracas on Monday, and although Chávez was already re-established as president of Venezuela, he met with leaders of various sectors of society for their input for a report he will present before the OAS General Assembly, a gathering of the members’ foreign ministers slated to take place Thursday in Washington.

During his Venezuela visit, the OAS Secretary-General defended the constitutionality of the Chávez presidency, though exhorted the national leader to engage the diverse sectors of the country in dialogue.

Reports emerged during Gaviria’s stay that linked the United States with the leaders of the failed coup.

Washington’s response at the height of the crisis had already triggered suspicions. While the nations of the Rio Group categorically rejected the rupture of democracy in Venezuela, the United States did not explicitly condemn the coup, and its government officials stated that Chávez himself “had provoked the crisis.”

Gaviria, in spite of repeated questions from the press in Caracas, refused to comment on the alleged role of the United States. He only stated that the OAS condemnation of the Venezuelan coup “had the support of all member countries.”

The organisation’s membership includes all countries of the Americas except Cuba. And it was precisely from Cuba that the first accusation was heard, Saturday, that the United States was involved with the coup leaders.

“This cannot be called a conspiracy. It is public knowledge that in the last five months Chávez’s opponents made almost weekly visits to Washington, but we must not forget that supporters also made the trip to seek support for the president,” a European diplomat said in an interview with IPS.

The Venezuelan press published big headlines Wednesday about a New York Times story stating that officials from the government of George W. Bush were in direct contact with the military leaders who carried out Friday’s coup.

In response to the allegations, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stated, “We explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup. Our position has been consistent. The political situation in Venezuela is one for the Venezuelans to resolve peacefully, democratically and constitutionally.”

The Bush administration, irked by Chávez’s ties with governments considered enemies of the United States, such as Cuba, Iraq and Libya, and uncomfortable with its leadership among petroleum exporting countries, did not hide its satisfaction with the overthrow of the Venezuelan president last Friday.

Even after several days of repeating that Washington “would reject any interruption or unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order,” but always in reference to Chávez, the U.S. State Department did not attempt to determine whether the fall of the Venezuelan president complied with its own definition.

Top U.S. officials have issued a long series of criticisms against Chávez since February, including allegations of his support for Colombian guerrilla groups.

Meanwhile, based on Article 20 of the OAS Democracy Charter, the Rio Group asked Gaviria to go to Caracas to make the stipulated “collective assessment of the situation and to take such decisions as deemed appropriate.”

The Charter states in Article 21 that a member of the organisation shall be suspended if it is determined that “an unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order” has occurred.

“The Venezuelan crisis has been the first test of the Democracy Charter, which is why the OAS has followed this situation so closely,” Demetrio Boersner, an academic and former Venezuelan diplomat to various countries, told IPS.

“What was brought to the forefront, beyond whether certain countries like Chávez’s style or not, is that the institutional order must not be violated, and that is the priority for the countries of the OAS,” he said.

With the obstacle of constitutional rupture now resolved with Chávez’s return to power, Gaviria issued recommendations to the Venezuelan government and to society on two points: create a space for dialogue among the opposing sectors, and do not foment the participation of the military in the political arena.

Gaviria, who met with Chávez and with various political and social leaders, stated that Venezuela had developed an “unhealthy custom” in the last few years of “turning members of the military into protagonists of political life.”

In reference to the “obligation of dialogue” amidst intense political confrontations and street clashes between the pro- and anti-Chávez groups, Gaviria stressed that the president has the greatest responsibility in carrying it through.

Chávez had already taken a conciliatory attitude Monday, reversing his often-antagonistic discourse to announce the creation of dialogue panels and to ask forgiveness from those he had verbally attacked in the past, and to suggest that the Catholic Church could serve as a mediator on the way forward.

Several non-governmental organisations signed a letter to Gaviria asking the OAS to send a permanent mission to Venezuela to monitor the political process as the nation rebuilds itself after the crisis.

Human rights activist Juan Navarrete told IPS that the organisations had suggested two mechanisms for the OAS to participate: create a truth commission to conduct impartial investigations of the dozens of deaths occurred during the crisis, and clear support for national dialogue.

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