A majority of nations in Latin America took an extraordinary step this week to solve a crisis in Venezuela that is literally spilling across their borders. At a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), they stated that a May 20 presidential election in Venezuela lacked legitimacy because it violated so many democratic norms.
In effect, countries representing most of Latin America’s population declared that President Nicolás Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela. The vote was a neighborly rebuke of a country drifting toward total dictatorship and economic ruin.
In the past two years, more than 2 million people have fled Venezuela to other parts of Latin America. The exodus has reinforced the idea that the region cannot ignore a loss of liberties in nearby countries. Mr. Maduro has jailed his main opponents and created a migration crisis out of his mangled management of a once-wealthy economy.
The vote against Maduro was made easier by the fact that the Lima Group, a body of 13 Latin American and Caribbean governments, plus Canada, was negotiating with him last year to hold off on an election until a free and fair process could be ensured. He ignored the request and called the election in May. Even though the election lacked “the necessary guarantees for a free, fair, transparent and democratic process,” as the OAS stated, Maduro claimed he won another six-year term.
The OAS vote on June 5 was not only a moral statement. It could now embolden a few Latin American countries to follow the United States and European Union in placing financial sanctions on top Venezuelan leaders. The EU, too, might stiffen its sanctions.
Latin America’s response is another example of how regional bodies – rather than the West or United Nations – can exert pressure on one of their own to follow democratic norms. Groupings in Africa and Southeast Asia, not to mention the EU, have sometimes shown the backbone to coax a neighbor away from an authoritarian path.
Calling out Maduro on his legitimacy as a ruler may also embolden his domestic opponents. While the regime holds the guns, the political opposition needs moral ammunition. With so many Venezuelans flooding the region, the OAS finally had to act. Telling the truth about a sham election may help puncture a big lie that keeps Maduro in power.