Carlos Garcia Rawlins / REUTERS Opposition supporters clashing with riot police in Caracas, Venezuela, May 2017.

Venezuela's Bad Neighbor Policy

Why It Quit the Organization of American States

Just a decade ago, Venezuela was perhaps the most influential Latin American country in the Organization of American States (OAS), the world’s oldest regional cooperation group. At the time, many of Latin America’s left-leaning leaders had ideological affinities with Venezuela’s socialist government, which was riding an economic boom on the back of its vast oil reserves. Hugo Chávez, the country’s charismatic former president, pursued an aggressive kind of petrodiplomacy, winning over or buying the silence of Venezuela’s neighbors as his rule became increasingly authoritarian.

Today’s situation is dramatically different. Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, presides over a broken nation of some 30 million people, most of whom are barely scraping by, desperate for food and medicine, fearful for their safety, and angered by their government’s erosion of democratic safeguards. On March 29, a Supreme Court ruling effectively closed down the opposition-dominated National Assembly, triggering massive street protests. Since then, more than 35 Venezuelans have been killed in violent clashes, many with government-backed militias—and there is no end in sight.

The Latin American governments that remained on the sidelines a decade ago now appear ready to take a stronger stand to prevent Venezuela from descending into deeper violence, state collapse, or a more repressive form of authoritarianism. Over the course of the last year, Venezuela was suspended from MERCOSUR, a regional trade bloc, and many Latin American officials—particularly in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru—began to forcefully criticize Maduro for the first time.

On April 26, after a majority of OAS states called a special meeting to discuss Venezuela’s crisis, Caracas declared that it would leave the organization. That choice need not spell the end of the international pressure on the Maduro government, however. By working together, the governments of the Western Hemisphere can still intensify their calls for the Venezuelan state to retreat from the precipice it is now approaching.

OUT IN THE COLD

In its nearly seven-decade history, no country has recommended that the body similarly suspend Venezuela unless it held elections and freed political prisoners over the month that followed. The Maduro government’s unilateral withdrawal from the organization seemed designed to preempt that outcome, which could have triggered multilateral banks to impose sanctions on Venezuela.

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