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The OAS House of Cards

By: María Teresa Romero - @mt_romero - Apr 6, 2015, 1:02 pm
The governments of Venezuela, the United States, and Cuba will hog the attention at the Summit of the Americas. (PanAm Post)
The governments of Venezuela, the United States, and Cuba will hog the attention at the Summit of the Americas. (PanAm Post)

EspañolWith the title of this article, I’m not talking about the ten million cards by Venezuelans, letters mostly written on a mandatory basis in schools and public institutions, that President Nicolás Maduro aims to bring to the Seventh Summit of the Americas of the Organization of American States (OAS), soon to be held in Panama on April 9.

These letters ask the Obama administration to repeal an executive order issued on March 9 which directly sanctions seven Chavista officials responsible for the death, persecution, torture, and abuse of innocent young people for peacefully protesting.

Instead, I’m referring to the numerous cards that are held up sleeves and played with discretion at any international event like this one, an opportunity for governments, organizations, and public figures to meet and interact.

The Panama City summit will provide multiple scenarios for the different actors to put their cards on the table, and reveal their interests, needs, and values. In addition to the Summit of Heads of State and Government to be held on April 10-11, with the topic “Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas,” other important forums will take place at the same time: the Youth of the Americas Forum, the Civil Society and Social Actors Forum, and CEO Summit, among others.

Also taking place are two “alternative summits” that are not part of the official event, and that are directed by radical socialist groups of the region. First is the People’s Summit, and then the Fifth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala, which sets out to defend Panama’s indigenous peoples and denounce the alleged abuses committed against them.

The governments of the United States, Cuba, and Venezuela undoubtedly hold the main cards. And public opinion in these countries, as well as in the rest of the hemisphere, and interested actors outside the continent – especially China, Russia, Iran, and in Western Europe – are watching closely to see how these are played and with what results.

It’s not a mere media show as many people think. The game among the three of them is a measurement of political strength that will have positive and negative effects both within those countries, as the hemisphere as a whole.

The US government may be most at risk in the game. It can be ambushed by Venezuela and Cuba, which despite currently having different strategies — Venezuela veers towards radicalization, while Cuba leans towards negotiation — are politically and ideologically aligned, and both want to weaken Obama’s administration.

However, the Venezuelan government may suffer a pincer movement by the governments of Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, who both want to rein in an out-of-control Nicolás Maduro.

For Washington, Maduro has gone too far due to reasons of principle: flagrant violations of human rights and the constitution, and links to narco-terrorism. For Cuba, it’s impatience is due to pragmatic reasons: it no longer has oil and money to plunge into the black hole of the Venezuelan economy. We’ll see which group of analysts is right as the Summit develops.

Everything will depend on how each government maneuvers its alliances. Maduro and Castro have a head start with the 16 countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), while Obama has far fewer. Even though this is not a definitive game, the winner or winners of this test of strength will affect the future of our region and the policies that dominate it.

In other words, the OAS Summit will be key in deciding whether the political pendulum continues in favor of authoritarian socialist governments, despite their general state of economic and political crisis, or if it tilts towards moderate democratic governments.

The other big card that will be played is the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the fundamental legal tool of the Inter-American system signed by OAS members in 2001, but something of a dead letter ever since. Governments avoid naming it, and play the fool when it’s mentioned. Nevertheless, it will be present at the Summit.

Civil-society groups from various countries, especially Cuba and Venezuela, will remind the assembled heads of state that it exists and that it must be invoked to threaten their respective countries with sanctions, and even expulsion from the OAS, if they fail to improve their human-rights records and fall in line with OAS rules.

If the governments present continue to ignore the requests and petitions of Latin-American civil society, a struggling OAS will become moribund, fulfilling the lifelong dreams of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.

Translated by Rebeca Morla. Edited by Laurie Blair.

María Teresa Romero María Teresa Romero

Romero is a journalist with a PhD in political science, specializing in international politics. She's a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, a columnist in several Venezuelan and international newspapers, and the author of several books. Follow her at @MT_romero.