The message to Venezuela was loud and clear: The ongoing economic, political, and humanitarian crisis is undermining human rights and their democracy.
That was the blunt warning delivered to Venezuelan officials after 20 member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) voted to debate the Venezuela crisis at a Permanent Council meeting on Tuesday.
Venezuela’s response was to attack the messengers.
At the OAS, the Venezuelan representative tried, with the support of a handful of allies, to stop the meeting. He argued that debating the Venezuelan situation without the government’s consent amounts to interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs, violating the country’s sovereignty. Rather than respond to the crisis in Venezuela, he accused OAS members of supporting a “coup” against the Maduro administration and attacked other governments’ records.
Back in Venezuela, the Supreme Court, at this point little more than an extension of the presidency, was ruling that a statement approved days earlier by the opposition majority in the National Assembly, supporting the OAS debate, constituted “actions that run counter to [Venezuela’s] independence and national sovereignty.” The court ruled that the legislature’s statement may constitute treason and warned that the legislators responsible would not enjoy parliamentary immunity. It ordered the president to adopt “economic, military, criminal, administrative, political, juridical, and social” measures that “he deems pertinent and necessary to avoid a state of commotion.” These are broad enough to include almost anything, but the court explicitly authorized President Nicolás Maduro to modify criminal laws, including the Code of Military Justice, noting that “military crimes may be being committed.”
The ruling opens the door to prosecution of opposition legislators in military courts, simply for performing legislative functions. In a country with more than 100 political prisoners, including some prosecuted in military courts, where the government is crushing dissent and suspending elections in a desperate struggle to stay in power, this is a real threat.
In this context, mounting regional pressure is good news. Governments pushing for the re-establishment of democracy and human rights in Venezuela – including Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the United States – should use Venezuela’s reaction to the OAS meeting as further evidence that the Maduro’s administration is willing to deploy the machinery of government – including the courts it has so thoroughly subordinated – to silence critics. Multilateral diplomacy is the only way to go to ensure that Maduro releases all political prisoners, allows elections, accepts appropriate humanitarian aid, and re-establishes the independence of all branches of government.