“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
A violent crackdown on student protests has suddenly focused much of the world’s attention on Venezuela. Famous for making headlines for the antics of its late president Hugo Chavez, these days Venezuela is making headlines for more sinister reasons – namely, the violent wave of repression that the government has used to quell the protests that have gripped the country for the past two weeks. What began as a protest by university students against the rising tide of violent crime, runaway inflation and the shortage of basic goods and foodstuffs due to the economy’s increasingly moribund state has turned into a country-wide pogrom by the Nicolas Maduro’s chavista government and the National Guard. The largely student-led protests spread to other sectors of Venezuelan society when the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana (GNB), or National Guard, opened fire and killed three students in a matter of days. What was initially an ordinary protest ballooned into a countrywide protest that now includes vast swathes of Venezuelan society.
Nicolas Maduro and the chavistas have responded by unleashing the National Guard, the National Police and armed paramilitary gangs known as the Tupamaros on the populace. The Tupamaros, described by the chavista government as “workers collectives” are little more than armed thugs loosely controlled by the government who roam the streets of Caracas and other cities with near impunity. Tanks, armed troops and motorized units have been allowed to take the streets and open fire on the protesters in an attempt to silence the opposition. As a result, the number of dead and wounded has multiplied exponentially. Meanwhile, the country’s media, largely controlled by the government, has been either shut down, or prohibited from reporting on the violence. Twitter and the Internet have been shut down in certain areas. Foreign journalists have been thrown out. As the mother of a student who was killed with a bullet to the head said, “They are fighting ideas with bullets.” Different sources and reports have even confirmed the arrival of foreign Cuban commando brigades, experts in riot control, to help the Venezuelan government in its crackdown. The Cuban dictatorship, a long-time ally of Venezuela’s chavista government, has landed elite anti-riot commando brigades – the notorious Avispas Negras (Black Wasps) - to aid Maduro’s government in the repression of his own people.
And how has the international community responded? How have Latin American leaders and more importantly, the Organization of American States acted in the face of this crisis? With silence and complicity. Sometimes even with support. Only the strongest democracies in the region, Chile and Costa Rica, have condemned the violence in Venezuela.
The events in Venezuela are an interesting example of the hypocrisy of Latin American leaders and their alleged “respect” for democracy and the rule of law. This was not the sort of response that we saw in 2009 from the OAS and Latin American leaders when left-wing Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was thrown out of office by a military coup. When the Honduran Army, on orders from the Honduran Supreme Court ousted President Manuel Zelaya and sent him into exile on June 28th, 2009, Latin American leaders reacted with outrage and were quick to condemn the coup. The coup was prompted by Zelaya’s violation of the constitution through his attempt to hold an illegal and unauthorized referendum to rewrite the constitution to allow for indefinite reelection. After Zelaya refused to comply with court orders to cease, the Honduran Supreme Court issued a warrant for his arrest. When Zelaya refused to submit to the order, Honduran soldiers detained him and instead of bringing him to trial, put him on a military airplane to Costa Rica. There were no deaths, but the military broke the law when, instead of bringing him to trial, mounted him on a plane into exile.
The OAS, invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter, reacted quickly and expelled Honduras from the organization. The quick reaction by the OAS and the wider Latin American community was seen by many as a sign that Latin America had finally grown up. Coups and anti-democratic actions would no longer stand unaddressed in the region. But this begs the question – where is the same concern for democracy and the rule of law when it comes to the case of Venezuela? What is the difference? Why the silence? If the bloodless ouster of Honduran leftist Manuel Zelaya prompted the harsh rebuke of the international community – why hasn’t the Venezuelan government’s violent and brutal crackdown on the Venezuelan people not prompted a similar response?
Ever since the arrival of Hugo Chavez and his socialist chavista government, Venezuela has been engaging in what many have called “petro-diplomacy.” In exchange for the loyalty and support of foreign governments Venezuela has funded and supported various left-wing governments across Latin America. It has used the largest oil reserves in the world to spread its influence and Socialist left wing ideology across the region to ensure that it has allies in times of crisis. Venezuela has supported the dictatorial regime of the Castros in Cuba with critical oil supplies it needs in order to survive. It has also supplied Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua with much needed economic aid and preferential oil deals. This strategy has been employed not just in Cuba and Nicaragua but in numerous other countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina among others. Even the relatively progressive government of Uruguay has not been free of the influence of Venezuela’s black gold. The Venezuelan government has used its petroleum and the promise of cheap oil deals to influence Latin American international relations and to win supporters to its side. Oil explains the willing complicity of regional governments to the violence in Venezuela.
Petro-diplomacy explains the schizophrenic and bi-polar responses by Latin American leaders when it comes to the situations in Honduras and Venezuela. Venezuela’s chavista government has been able to use its oil to win the support and loyalty of many governments in the region. It explains how the OAS and its members expelled Honduras in 2009 for a military coup against its leftist leader Manuel Zelaya against an affront to democracy, and then proceeded, only a few months later, to hold a vote allowing Cuba, the only non-democratic dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere, to return to the OAS. After much attention, Cuba actually declined the invitation to return.
The reaction of many governments in the region to the crisis in Venezuela should come as no surprise to the astute observer. It is no surprise that they have either openly come out in support of the government’s violent crackdown or remained silent in the face of the violence. If you want to decipher the mystery of the hypocrisy of Latin American leaders and the OAS, you only need to look at the sweet oil deals that they have been receiving from Venezuela’s chavista government.
Latin American leaders like to speak the language of democracy and the rule of law – but they do not practice it. When they remain silent in the face of the violence in Venezuela they are as culpable as Nicolas Maduro’s government. They have traded their ideals and principles for their own economic interests – and in the process they have abandoned their Latin American brothers.