Venezuela knocks over its democracy. The region pushes back.

The Supreme Court's takeover of Venezuela's parliament and spillover from a dysfunctional economy are causing neighboring countries to speak up against its authoritarian moves.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
An opposition supporter takes part in a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's government near Venezuela Central University in Caracas, Venezuela, March 31, 2017. The banner at the back reads, "Not to the self-coup. We want elections."

For years, Venezuela has flirted with authoritarianism. This week, it bid goodbye to any pretense that it remained a democratic country.

The nation’s Supreme Court announced Wednesday it would take over legislative powers and essentially dissolve the National Assembly, the only government pillar controlled by the political opposition. President Nicolás Maduro “is now the National Assembly,” the body’s president, Julio Borges, told the Associated Press after the decision was announced. “It’s one thing to try and build a dictatorship and another to complete the circuit.”

But the crumbling of Venezuela’s democracy isn’t a challenge confined to those living there. Problems caused by drug-trafficking and Venezuela’s increasingly dysfunctional economy are beginning to spill over into neighboring countries. And despite the region’s sensitivity to foreign meddling, given its rich history of US-backed coups, those countries are beginning to speak up.

The head of the 34-nation Organization of American States labeled the move a “self-inflicted coup,” and “the final blow to democracy” in Venezuela, and Peru withdrew its ambassador in protest.

The question is: Are regional attempts to broker some kind of political solution too little too late?

Last week, a dozen Latin American nations along with the United States and Canada made a rare joint statement calling on President Maduro to recognize the National Assembly’s power. The meeting was called in response to a report issued earlier this month by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, which characterized Venezuela as lacking rule of law.

“The diplomatic efforts undertaken have resulted in no progress,” Mr. Almagro wrote. “Repeated attempts at dialogue have failed and the citizens of Venezuela further lose faith in their government and the democratic process.”

The OAS threatened to suspend Venezuela from the region’s main collective body, but the effort was thwarted by a number of small countries that long benefited from subsidized oil shipments under former President Hugo Chávez.

Misplaced optimism

Neighbors largely kept to the sidelines as the late Mr. Chávez, and more recently Maduro, dismantled presidential checks and balances piece by piece, or clamped down on freedom of expression and human rights.

“There was always a hint of optimism” around what often appeared to be undemocratic moves by Venezuelan authorities, tilting the playing field to benefit those in power, says Christopher Sabatini, a Latin American specialist at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York. Many regional neighbors had faith that things would fall into place: the political opposition would unify and gain a foothold in the government and things would turn around, or the administration would be forced to reevaluate its position in the context of plummeting oil revenues or a starving electoral base.

“For years the [political] opposition has been knocking on the doors of regional governments,” talking about oppression and asking for assistance, says Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela. “But regional governments, even the United States, said ‘This is a legitimate government, it was voted into power.’ That was the excuse for not implementing sanctions or calling for change.”

There are other reasons for the reticence to criticize Venezuela, says Mr. Sabatini. “It’s very difficult for this region to call out democratic abuses by a leftist government.”

Many Latin American nations suffered years, or even decades, of military dictatorships during the 20th century. As a result, the political left is seen as the moral authority over strong commitments to social justice and protecting human, cultural, social, and economic rights.

“You can talk to human rights activists in [Latin America] and ask, ‘Why don’t you say anything about Cuba?’ ” Sabatini says, offering another example. “And they say, ‘It’s a mess, but we can’t. Castro is such an icon.’ ”

Venezuela’s foreign ministry played on this history in defending the court’s decision this week, accusing critics of forming a “right-wing regional pact” to topple Maduro.

And that’s the other side of the coin, says Sabatini. While many in the region have long feared calling out Venezuela due to  Chávez’s commitment to the poor and social programming, others have sometimes been too quick to call foul, undermining legitimate concerns.

The spillover problem 

The Supreme Court’s decision this week may change that dynamic. The court first limited lawmakers’ immunity and then assumed control of the National Assembly because it deemed the body in contempt of past court rulings. The decision dismantles the legislature, which was democratically elected in 2015 with a majority of opposition lawmakers.

Venezuelans took to the streets in protest early Friday in small numbers, and imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López called on citizens via Twitter to “reject dictatorship and rescue democracy.”

Venezuela has long imprisoned opposition activists, shut down local media, and barred international news outlets from reporting in the country. A lower court suspended a recall referendum, allowed under the constitution, which could have led to an emergency presidential election, citing irregularities in how signatures were gathered.

And as citizens face historic shortages of food and medical supplies, and hunger and malnutrition sweep the country, the government continues to deny Venezuela is dealing with a humanitarian emergency.

Mr. Romero in Caracas says there are growing concerns over mass migration, drug trafficking, and other illegal activities spilling out from Venezuela, not only into Colombia, which has long been the case, but into Brazil, Guyana, and nearby islands like Curaçao.

“For these countries it’s becoming a theme of security,” Romero says.

Over the years, regional bodies, including UNASUR, a collection of South American nations, have tried to ignite discourse, but those efforts fizzled out.

“Neighboring countries, friendly countries, can only do so much,” says Celso Amorim, a former Brazilian foreign minister under Presidents Itamar Franco and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “We can’t really interfere directly in the politics of Venezuela.”

He believes dialogue has long been the only path forward for Venezuela, but recent moves to condemn the administration are pushing it more toward isolation and making regional diplomacy more challenging. And other problems in Latin America – from economic slowdowns to a presidential impeachment in Brazil and the end of a decades-long civil war in Colombia – are pressuring governments to keep their eyes on internal problems.

“Of course we cannot bump a country into democracy through dialogue,” says Mr. Amorim, who recently published a book, “Acting Globally: Memoirs of Brazil's Assertive Foreign Policy.” “But dialogue can avoid the worst. Parties can come to some kind of agreement.”

The endgame  

Some worry the calls for talks with Venezuela are coming too late. “There’s no longer a clear institutional exit,” says Sabatini. “There’s not an election, the government has shut down the option of a referendum. Do you form a coalition government? Would that include some elements who have very unsavory ties” to the current administration, he asks.

And then there’s the question of who else in the region might be watching Venezuela and taking notes, Sabatini says. Nicaragua has taken steps in recent years to weaken its democracy, with President Daniel Ortega running for and winning his third consecutive five-year term last fall with his wife as his running partner. Ecuador is facing a heated runoff election this weekend that is the first time in a decade that President Rafael Correa isn’t on the ballot. His former vice president is on the ticket, but how a potential loss in Correa’s camp is received could determine Ecuador’s democratic health.

“Venezuelan authorities can keep living in their movie, controlling the public, reducing democracy, clamping down on the press,” says Romero. “But we’ve seen this story before and it doesn’t end well.”

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