SANTIAGO – When violence flared up in Ukraine and protesters began dying at the hands of government agents, the European Union threatened sanctions against Ukrainian officials responsible for “violence and excessive force.” President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv, leaving behind a private zoo with exotic pigs and goats – and also the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Poland, who were in town trying to broker a deal to end the violence.
But when violence flared up – virtually simultaneously – in Venezuela and protesters began dying at the hands of government agents, the Organization of American States raised its voice to announce that...it would not raise its voice. The situation was up to Venezuela to sort out, the OAS stated. Foreign ministers from other Latin American countries are nowhere to be seen in Caracas – certainly not denouncing repression and demanding an end to the violence. Meanwhile, the body count keeps rising.
The contrast highlights what everyone already knows: Latin America’s regional institutions are weak – even weaker than Europe’s. But it also reveals something else: a morally crooked logic that condemns governments and leaders to remain silent in the face of aggression, repression, and even death, because to say anything would be tantamount to “intervention” in another country’s internal affairs.
It was not always like this. Not long ago in Latin America, life and liberty were deemed to be universal rights, to be defended across national borders.
My father was a Chilean lawyer and human-rights activist. General Augusto Pinochet kicked him and our family out of the country, and I spent my adolescence and early adulthood in exile, sharing hopes and fears with other expatriates from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. None of us – and no one on the Latin American left – would have doubted for a moment that defending human rights was everyone’s responsibility, and that the international community should come down hard on governments that tortured and killed their own people.
In Pinochet’s Chile or General Jorge Rafael Videla’s Argentina, anyone who complained about government-sponsored violence was painted as a member of an international communist conspiracy. Today, anyone who complains about violence in Venezuela is, according to President Nicolás Maduro, a fascist and a lackey of the American empire. Everything has changed, yet everything remains the same.
Yes, the situation in Venezuela must be sorted out by Venezuelans. The problem is that some Venezuelans today cannot march peacefully on the streets without being shot at. Some Venezuelans cannot speak freely to their fellow citizens, because each and every television station that would carry their words has been muzzled or driven off the air.
And some Venezuelans cannot be sure their rights will be respected. Terms in office have expired for the prosecutor-general, members of the national election commission, and supreme court justices, but no successors have been named, because Maduro is unwilling to negotiate with the opposition and lacks the two-thirds majority in the National Assembly needed to appoint officials of his choosing.
Venezuelans would like nothing better than to be the ones who decide their own destiny, but the democratic means to do so are being denied to them. Indeed, one of the key opposition leaders, Leopoldo López, has been arrested on ludicrous charges of “inciting crime.”
It would have been preposterous to tell Ukrainian demonstrators facing government storm troopers to just grin and bear it without any external solidarity or support. It is just as preposterous to tell Venezuelan demonstrators the same thing. In these circumstances, the principle of self-determination, so beloved of foreign ministries everywhere, becomes an empty slogan.
Perhaps the saddest of all foreign reactions came from the University of Chile’s student federation. Using language reminiscent of the Stalinist 1950’s, the federation – which has led student protests demanding better education in Chile – condemned their Venezuelan counterparts for “defending the old order” and “deviating from the path the people have chosen.”
The problem with this argument (if one can call it that) is that “the people” do not speak with one voice, nor do their pronouncements fall fully formed from the sky. To figure out what real people actually want and respond accordingly, democracies have procedures, constitutional guarantees, and individual rights. When these are trampled upon, as they have been in Venezuela, people can neither speak freely nor choose their path.
It is equally silly to argue that Maduro’s actions must be legitimate because he came to power through an election. A democratically elected leader retains legitimacy only to the extent that he or she behaves democratically once in office.
As Georgetown professor Hector Schamis recently recalled, António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, and Suharto in Indonesia attained power through elections, yet no history book calls them democratic. Yanukovych, too, won an election, but he will be remembered mostly for the bloodshed he unleashed, the bankruptcy that now faces Ukraine’s economy, and, of course, his private zoo and stable of Ferraris.
Venezuelans, like Ukrainians, should know that they are not alone. Their struggle for democratic rights is everyone’s struggle. People in Latin America know this, even if their leaders are not always willing to say it out loud.