The Organization of American States (OAS) or, as it is known in the three other official languages (OEA), is an international organization, headquartered in Washington D.C. Its members are the thirty-five independent states of the Americas, including the United States, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. In the words of Article 1 of the OAS Charter, the goal of the member nations in creating the OAS was “to achieve an order of peace and justice, to promote their solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence.”1
The OAS has adopted resolutions related to various themes that are part of the inter-American agenda, such as the promotion and protection of human rights, social and economic development, hemispheric security, the fight against corruption, strengthening democracy, conflict resolution and attention to crises, among others.
The 37th Regular Session of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) was held in Panama from June 3-5, 2007.2 The event focused on “Energy for Sustainable Development,” in recognition of the fundamental importance of energy resources for the future of the countries in the region. Ethanol has been a hot topic in recent months and since many countries in Latin America produce sugar cane, the
2 AG/DEC. 52 (XXXVII O/07) DECLARATION OF PANAMA: ENERGY FOR sustainable DEVELOPMENT (Adopted at the fourth plenary session, held on June 5, 2007)
promotion of this alternative fuel could have great impact on the development of the Americas. It could also be a way to become less dependent on oil especially from Venezuela.
But in light of recent events that have and are occurring in Venezuela against freedom of expression, the event in Panama presented the perfect opportunity to discuss the shutting down of the Venezuelan TV channel, RCTV. Surprisingly, the OAS and its members refrained from denouncing what happened with the TV channel, a decision which is incomprehensible and worrisome.
Andres Oppenheimer in his editorial “OAS Silence on Venezuela Censorship Scary” writes: “The failure by most Latin American countries to speak out against Venezuela’s censorship of its oldest nationwide television network at the OAS meeting in Panama marked a serious setback for freedom of the press — and democracy — in the region. In one of the most blatant displays of disdain for democratic freedoms, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador, not only failed to denounce Venezuela’s narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chávez’s decision not to renew the license of the RCTV network, but openly applauded it. Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, even visited Caracas and personally congratulated Chávez for his decision to silence the network.”3
Oppenheimer continues: “Caribbean countries, which increasingly depend on Chávez’s oil subsidies, remained silent. What is more difficult to understand was the failure of Latin America’s biggest countries — Mexico, Brazil and Argentina — to mention the RCTV case in their speeches at the OAS meeting. Only two countries made a clear reference to the importance of freedom of expression: the United States and El Salvador.”4
Roger F. Noriega from the “American Enterprise Institute,” accurately pinpoints, “When challenged in recent months to confront glaring violations of freedom of expression, separation of powers, and constitutional order, the OAS and its member states have done nothing…If the ideal of inter-American democratic solidarity is buried under such indifference, it is not merely because Chávez wants it dead. It is because most of the others in the region did not agree that the collective defense of democracy is a principle worth saving. In Venezuela, Chávez is consolidating dictatorial control over the legislature, the courts, the electoral apparatus, and now, with his closure on May 27 of the last independent broadcast station, the media. He is even bullying his domestic political allies into joining his unitary political party. He has militarized politics and politicized the military, and once-self-respecting, nationalistic Venezuelan soldiers are now forced to return salutes by barking the fidelista slogan, “Fatherland, socialism, or death.” “Chávez’s anti-democratic campaign is not confined to his own country. Treating the largesse of his oil-rich nation as a petty cash box, Chávez has inspired and supported a band of elected autocrats like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.”5
US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, proposed including the freedom of expression situation in Venezuela in the OAS agenda because of the RCTV case,
3 OAS silence on Venezuela censorship scary. Jun. 07, 2007. ANDRES OPPENHEIMER.
5 The End of Democratic Solidarity in the Americas? Roger F. Noriega from the “American Enterprise Institute.” June 14, 2007. 2
which Venezuela rejected point blank as an intervention in the country’s internal affairs. But Rice’s proposal was not included and Chávez celebrated that Washington was once again “defeated” in the OAS as was its attempt to coordinate an international condemnation of Venezuela. Secretary Rice told her OAS counterparts:
“In a democracy the citizens of a country should have the assurance that the policies of their government will be held up for criticism by a free and independent press without the interference of their government. The citizens of the United States have that assurance. I sincerely hope that the citizens of Venezuela will have that assurance as well.6
While Secretary Rice’s comments reportedly were met with loud applause, the OAS’s official silence was deafening. The gathering of regional diplomats did not produce a single resolution or communiqué committed to act on this blatant restriction of freedom of expression in Venezuela.7
Mr. Noriega makes an excellent point when he states: “Tenderhearted critics will always be appalled when a U.S. official makes public declarations that irritate Chávez or his cronies, but there is a vast difference between hurling personal insults, on the one hand, and expressing concern about where Chávez is taking Venezuela and invoking his obligation to respect representative democracy, on the other. If we send muddled messages and appear unwilling to make value judgments about troubling events in the region, we make matters worse for ourselves and for our friends in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and elsewhere in Latin America.”8
“…Ironically, those U.S. Latinamericanists who are the most offended by such value judgments or by the slightest criticism of unfriendly leaders are the first to find fault with our friends. They have very little to say as Chávez perfects a dictatorship in Venezuela, but in recent weeks they have been quick to make harsh–even humiliating–public statements about Álvaro Uribe, a U.S. ally and president of Colombia. Back in Venezuela, university students have led intense protests challenging President Chávez’s decision to silence Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), the sole remaining broadcast network that was not a mouthpiece for his regime. This latest move is but one more step on the path toward dictatorship–with Chávez having undermined systematically the already weak democratic institutions of his country.9
In Noriega’s words “Most governments in Latin America and the Caribbean are unwilling to intervene in the internal affairs of a sister state–and even less so if it means risking a bilateral confrontation with the volatile and wealthy Chávez. For this reason, the OAS can serve a critical role as an instrument for concerted regional inquiry and action. If the OAS secretary general is strong and enjoys the confidence and the backing of key countries, he can speak and act–albeit cautiously and respectfully–as a representative of the region to examine troubling events and make recommendations for a regional response.10
6 Quoted in Pablo Bachelet, “Rice Calls for OAS Action on Venezuela,” Miami Herald, June 4, 2007.
7 Noriega Ibid.
8 Noriega Ibid.
Upon his election as secretary general in 2005, Chilean José Miguel Insulza pledged to make the OAS an effective instrument to deal with those elected leaders who do not govern democratically. But when member states failed to back these ideas in Panama, he apparently retreated.11 Even worse, Insulza issued the following statement: “We should wonder why a number of democratic countries where freedom of expression prevails decided not to take a stance on this issue”. “I believe the reason is that they believed this is an administrative measure a member State has taken which does not endanger its democracy”. Insulza claimed that, under OAS, certain interventions are allowed “only when there is a serious threat of rupture of democracy.” However, in his view democracy in Venezuela is not threatened, he added.12
Chilean José Miguel Insulza. Source: El Nuevo Diario.
Andres Oppenheimer adds: “When diplomats were asked (in Panama) about RCTV, they merely stated that they could not make an explicit reference to the case at the OAS meeting because Venezuela — as a sovereign country — has the legal right not to renew television licenses. In addition, they said the OAS meeting was to discuss alternative energy sources, and that Ms. Rice’s speech requesting an OAS mission to Venezuela to look into the RCTV case is something that Washington must now present officially in writing, so it can be discussed at the OAS’ regular sessions at the group’s headquarters in Washington.”13
Oppenheimer differs by stating “these arguments are sounding pretty weak. First, Chávez’s decision not to renew RCTV’s license was an openly political move: Chávez himself announced five months before RCTV’s May 27 shutdown that he would not renew the network’s license because of its news coverage during a 2002 coup attempt. Most importantly, Chávez shut down RCTV — which had been on the air for 53 years — without calling for a public hearing. Chavez simply took over the network and turned it into another pro-government mouthpiece, in what was an effective government takeover of a private network. Now, Chávez controls most nationwide television networks, and the ones that remain in private hands — except for Globovisión, which is on cable and doesn’t have a nationwide reach — are self-censoring their news. Venezuela’s television has become a one-man show.14
12 Chavez thanks OAS for not intervening in the RCTV case. June 17, 2007. MercoPress, Uruguay.
13 OPPENHEIMER Ibid.
“What could Latin America’s democracies have done? Under OAS rules, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and other countries could have perfectly well expressed their alarm over Venezuela’s assault on freedom of the press, citing the group’s 2001 Democratic Charter. In its Article 4, it says that “freedom of expression and of the press” are “fundamental components” of the regional treaty. In the end, the OAS meeting adopted a wishy-washy resolution in support of freedom of the press, but without mentioning either Venezuela or the RCTV issue by name. Worse, the OAS meeting appointed a Venezuelan government nominee as one of the seven members of the OAS Human Rights Commission.15
The OAS and Mr. Insulza have made a terrible mistake. In its Resolution Nº 1932 titled “ACCESS TO PUBLIC INFORMATION: STRENGTHENING DEMOCRACY” which was adopted at the fourth plenary session, held on June 10, 2003 states: THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY establishes that the right to freedom of thought and expression includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers and through any medium.16
If the OAS doesn’t honor its resolutions, it risks losing its credibility. With that in mind, how can it dismiss Chávez’s grotesque censorship of an independent media outlet? This decision sets a terrible precedent suggesting to leaders from countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua who are now threatening the free press in their respective countries that this may be an opportunity to carry our their threats effectively with the guarantee that no one will do anything about it.
Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. (www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org). She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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