Venezuela’s neighbours studiously ignore the crisis unfolding next door
FOR Latin American presidents of all political persuasions, a knock on the door from Henrique Capriles is a far from welcome sound these days. Not that the leader of Venezuela’s opposition is a particularly boring or obnoxious guest, despite the strenuous efforts of President Nicolás Maduro to portray him as a “murderous fascist”. It’s just that having Mr Capriles round for a cup of tea can get you into all sorts of trouble, as Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos found out to his cost.
On May 29th a shirtsleeved Mr Santos held a private meeting of about an hour with Mr Capriles, which provoked a barrage of invective from the Venezuelan government. The Colombian president had “put a bomb under” relations between the two countries, said Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of Venezuela’s National Assembly. Venezuela would have to “review” its support for Colombia’s peace talks with the leftist FARC guerrillas, added Elías Jaua, the foreign minister.
To top things off, Mr Maduro said certain Colombian institutions “at the highest level” were plotting with the Venezuelan opposition to inject him with a poison that would lead to a slow death. Mr Santos said this was “crazy”. His foreign minister declined to engage in microphone diplomacy. Colombia and Venezuela, whose governments are poles apart ideologically, have enjoyed a friendship of convenience in recent years after a very rocky decade.
The reason for all the huffing and puffing is that Mr Capriles, who came within an ace of winning a snap presidential election on April 14th, has challenged the result in the supreme court and is seeking to persuade the region’s governments of his case. Mr Maduro is the chosen successor of Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in March, five months after being re-elected. He heads a weak administration beset by political and economic problems and desperate to hang on to the international support that Chávez built up over more than a decade of oil diplomacy. With the Chávez charisma gone, the new president’s legitimacy in doubt and the money running out, bluster is one of the few resources not in short supply.
This week was to have been Peru’s turn to receive a visit from Mr Capriles. But such was the panic in Ollanta Humala’s government at having to decide whether to receive him that the trip was postponed. Peru currently chairs the South American Union (Unasur), one of several regional bodies failing to deal with the Venezuelan crisis. Unasur held an emergency meeting on the eve of Mr Maduro’s inauguration to insist on an audit of the election result. But although the opposition says the partial audit now under way is insufficient, Unasur has failed to pursue the case. Peru’s foreign minister stood down—officially for health reasons—shortly after he had the effrontery to say publicly that a fresh Unasur summit on the subject was being mooted.
Most Latin American and Caribbean governments are either ideologically close to thechavista regime, dependent on its oil-fuelled largesse, or simply disinclined to incur its wrath. The Organisation of American States (OAS), whose annual assembly began on June 4th in Guatemala, is bound by treaty to monitor its members’ democratic credentials. But the OAS’s Democratic Charter, launched in 2001, has so far been used only to protect presidents (including Chávez) and to bludgeon puny countries such as Honduras and Paraguay. Brazil, which has the muscle to take on a country the size of Venezuela, seems more concerned with protecting its businesses, which are making billions from trade with its northern neighbour.
Ahead of the OAS meeting its secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, said the “atmosphere” was not conducive to a discussion of the Venezuelan crisis—a diplomatic way of saying no one was prepared to pick up the hot potato. Mr Insulza himself has in the past admitted that Venezuela is in breach of the Democratic Charter. Among other things, it requires an independent judiciary and guarantees recourse to the inter-American human-rights system. Venezuela has announced that it will abandon the system later this year.
The ostrich approach may not work for ever. For one thing, the Venezuelan opposition’s campaign across the region is putting presidents under pressure from their parliaments and civic groups to support democracy. Second, Venezuela’s political fragility and Mr Maduro’s weakness threaten instability which the region may be unable to ignore. Shutting the door in Mr Capriles’ face could prove a short-sighted policy, as well as a shameful one.