OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro wrote a letter
to Venezuela CNE Director Tibisay Lucena. If you have any interest in Venezuela's elections or any interest in the future of the Organization of American States in the hemisphere, you should go read the letter. All 18 pages.
1. In terms of Venezuela, Almagro's letter combines high level principles about democracy and the role of the OAS with specific details of where the Venezuelan government has undermined democratic values and human rights. It lists off criticisms of the jailing of opposition leaders and the banning of candidates. It criticizes specific acts of electoral bias as well as censorship and threats against the media in Venezuela. I expect the Venezuelan government to respond with its usual generic anti-imperialist rhetoric plus some comments about how the OAS acted in 2002, but Almagro's specific criticisms are going to stick.
2. So who is the letter's intended audience and what is its intended effect? Those are the questions analysts should be asking. Obviously, Tibisay Lucena is the named recipient. Even though she has not always played a neutral role in the past, this letter is a personal appeal to her to be a fair and neutral actor in the event of an opposition win. Yet, this is not a private letter among leaders. Almagro has released this letter publicly with the hopes of influencing others and improving the situation.
For President Maduro, this letter is a warning shot to Venezuela's leader telling him that the OAS is not going to stand by if the election is stolen. If that occurs, Almagro is signaling that he is personally going to make the push on invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Even if Maduro thinks he can round up the votes to prevent it, that is not a debate the Venezuelan government wants to occur.
To Venezuela's opposition and the general voting population, this letter is a sign that there are international actors watching and advocating for a fair election on their behalf. There is still significant tension within the opposition over the question of participation as well as a feeling of dread among some who believe the election will be stolen and nothing can be done. This letter is supposed to show Venezuela's citizens of all parties (or no party) that their vote will count or someone will call out the problems.
For other regional actors including Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay (Almagro's home country), this letter is intended to help advance a stronger position for fair elections within UNASUR and outline the key criticisms that UNASUR should address as they participate in Venezuela where the OAS cannot.
To the US, which has been long been critical of the lack of OAS action in Venezuela, this letter is sign of renewed vitality in the OAS and a reason to continue supporting the organization. At the same time, just because Almagro and the US agree on this issue, nobody should think Almagro is going to back the US regularly. This letter is a personal effort by him and a sign he's going to be an independent leader of his own organization.
3. At a regional level, Almagro wants to lead a more activist OAS. The Venezuelan government has rejected the OAS role as an election observer. Instead of sitting back and saying "oh well, that's their sovereign right" Almagro has inserted himself directly in the debate over the country's declining democracy and human rights situation.
While the Venezuela letter is the most forceful push to date, it's not the only one. For example, Almagro's seven page reply
about the MACCIH to Honduras's Oposicion Indignada (and it's classy of the OAS to publish their critics' letter
on the front page of the OAS website as part of the debate), makes a strong case for the OAS taking a more active role in promoting anti-corruption investigations and institution strengthening.
The debate over Honduras probably deserves its own post, but the important part here is that Almagro is not sitting back on these issues and letting the OAS bureaucratize and debate itself to death. Almagro views himself and the organization as an active participant in the hemisphere who is willing to push forward, even at the cost of potentially making mistakes or (gasp) doing something controversial. That is a welcome change and necessary for the OAS to be relevant in the coming decades.
4. Election observation is important. The push for fair elections in Venezuela appears to be part of a broader effort by Almagro for more, better, and higher profile election observation. The OAS has been highlighting its election observation efforts for months and has conducted several key observation missions in recent weeks, with more events coming up in Paraguay and Haiti. I don't think this is an accident of the electoral calendar. I think Almagro agrees with the recommendations of others that the OAS is strongly suited for neutral election observation as one of its primary roles in the hemisphere. Election observation is one of the issues that will dominate the OAS in the coming decade and one where it can do significant good.
While Venezuela believed it could back out of the system by rejecting observers, Almagro's letter is showing public consequences for doing so. This letter on Venezuela is going to be far more read than the observer missions' reports on the recent Colombia or Guatemala elections. This hemisphere is supposed to be democratic, election observers are a key part to helping protect democratic rights, and the OAS can play an important role in improving elections across the hemisphere in its observations, reports, recommendations and technical assistance.