Make Latin America Great Again

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), is on a mission. Member states want Venezuela expelled from the organization and President Nicolas Maduro removed from office. Almagro accuses Maduro of corruption, human rights abuses and drug trafficking. The war of words between the two has characterized Almagro’s three years at the helm of the OAS. But the tough talk has also had an unexpected effect: it has restored the OAS – the world’s oldest regional organization – as the place Latin America turns to in order to solve regional issues. Almagro recently sat down with IEFA magazine’s John Yearwood for a wide-ranging interview that touched on the myriad challenges confronting the region, from fears of an autocrat taking the helm in Brazil and whether the United States remains a strong and committed regional partner, to his own future with the organization. Much of the conversation involved how to handle the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

by John Yearwood

Is Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a criminal?

Everybody should be judged and investigated and have a fair trial to determine their guilt or innocence. We’re asking the International Criminal Court for him to be investigated according to the testimony presented by the victims and their families. It’s true that it has been impossible to have justice in Venezuela. These cases have never been investigated and nobody has been charged. The second charge involves corruption. And of course, the Supreme Court of Venezuela (in exile) has ruled that he is guilty of corruption. There we have a decision that shows him to be a criminal. The third charge involves drug trafficking. A New York decision has condemned the First Lady’s nephews. The trial provided evidence that presidential facilities were used to implement and execute drug trafficking activities.

How hopeful are you that any proceedings at the International Criminal Court would result in Maduro’s removal?

Especially when you’re living under a dictatorship, criminals are not removed through institutional means. These accusations of crimes against humanity and human rights violations make it practically impossible for him to just leave power behind. We don’t know of any criminal who has presented himself at the police station and said, “Look, I’m guilty of this – drug trafficking or whatever – put me in jail.” Definitely, there will have to be some stronger measures to remove him from office.

When you talk about “stronger measures” to remove him, are you referring to a military option?

The measures must be implemented according to international public law. They cannot be implemented in a way that contradicts that, because if you eat the cannibals you become one of them. Rights that are enforced by international law, such as the responsibility to protect humanitarian intervention, also apply to Venezuela.

When you look at the situation in Venezuela today, do you consider it electoral cleansing?

Yes, it has happened very gradually over a period of many years. It has accelerated in recent years because of political pressure. You see how many Venezuelan politicians are in exile and how many are in jail; how many people have been killed in the streets and how many politicians have become completely silenced because of pressure, extortion or blackmail. This has been Maduro’s basic strategy to remain in power and it’s very obvious.

You recently visited Venezuelan refugees in Colombia. What did you learn from the visit?

I learned something basic but very clear, something that Venezuelans who have been forced to flee the country expressed in a very straightforward way. The first thing they asked is that I remove Maduro. These are very humble people. Most of them don’t have any political motivation. It’s a social need, more than a political need. They say, “We need our country to be fixed, someone must do something about this dictatorship.” Their situation is desperate.

Vice-President Mike Pence said during an OAS event at the White House that Latin America is a “key priority” for the United States. Do you agree?

Yes, I have seen it. I’ve seen it even before that. For good or bad reasons, Latin American countries have been in the news here. That’s something that was not very common before. Suddenly, Mexico was news, Venezuela was news, Cuba was news, Brazil was news. Now, because of what’s happening in those countries, American public opinion and the American media are taking an interest in Latin America, and the OAS has suddenly become a useful multi-lateral tool. An administration that is often accused of not using multi-lateral tools is now working with the OAS to find solutions to the crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua and Cuba.

President Donald Trump has yet to visit the region after canceling his planned trip in April. How can the US reassert its leadership in the region?

The United States is an important reference point for all Latin American countries. All of our countries want to have the best possible relations with the United States, to have a very positive agenda with, and to be as close as possible to that country. Most of them have been working very hard to strengthen political links and to reformulate trade partnerships and some sort of cooperation framework.

Now that the Democrats have retaken the House of Representatives, what do you expect will happen in the US-Latin American relationship?

I expect things will continue to be guided by principles and values. The most relevant factors for us are the continent’s political agenda, democracy and human rights. And US support for cooperation and security and development projects. But what we expect is that the administration – the White House, the State Department and Congress – will remain very positive about the Latin American agenda. We expect that, whenever necessary, they will take action and formulate strong positions on democratic problems or human rights violations in Latin America.

The administration has revoked Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Honduran, Salvadoran and Haitian refugees. Do you expect that action to be reversed?

It’s a shame they did that. TPS is even more necessary these days, and I could add that Venezuelans also need it. In fact, they should have priority because of the security and humanitarian situation in Venezuela. Venezuela and Nicaragua should both be a priority to receive TPS in the United States.

But the President revoked TPS for residents of many of those countries...

That affected many people. We made a statement that we were against that measure. TPS should be expanded to Venezuela and Nicaragua, too, because of the urgent crisis they are facing.

Do you expect to see more caravans coming into the US from Central America?

I would like the caravans to be clearer about their purpose. It’s very unlikely that you’ll get into a country when you’re in the middle of a caravan. You may have better luck getting in by yourself or going through the normal channels. Getting into the United States does not seem to be the most obvious reason for forming the caravan, although I agree there have been some positive outcomes. In the past, most of these migrants were robbed, raped, attacked or assaulted along the way. When they are all together, it’s easier for them to protect themselves, but the sheer size of the caravan makes it much more difficult to get into the US.

The Miami Herald’s Andrés Oppenheimer has written that he fears that Brazil is headed toward a chaotic populist autocracy under newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro. Do you agree? What do you see happening there?

No, no. I don’t agree. First of all, you can’t judge a president before he has taken office. That is unfair. I’m sure he will work hard to find solutions to the most pressing Brazilian issues. Second, in Brazil, institutions are very strong: Congress, the Senate, the judiciary are all very strong. The Presidency and executive are highly institutionalized so I expect Bolsonaro to adhere to the tenets of the Constitution and the rule of law.

Do you have any worries or concerns about what he would do?

So far, as with every new president, we are keeping an open mind about him. Completely. It’s up to him whether he keeps that openness throughout his term or loses it. We’ll work with him; we’ll work with Brazil.

There have been many elections in the region this year and most of the winners have been on the right. How do you explain that?

Five, six, eight years ago most of the winners were on the left. It’s a clear shift. People are always looking for options. In a democracy, you have to deliver, and when you stop delivering, people change.

So, you don’t think the region is sending a larger message?

No, no. You have Mexico voting for the left and you have big countries – Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia – voting for the right, even though they had governments on the left just a few years ago. These days, citizens play the most important role in a democracy, so you have to know how to read the needs and beliefs of your citizens.

In Mexico, are you worried that the new President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, might not support your strong stand against Venezuela?

I’m not worried at all. I’m sure that Mexico will be helpful. The Venezuelan issue is impossible to ignore. A democratic Venezuela, a strong Venezuela, is very important for all the countries in the region. The situation there affects many of our countries. They have been affected because of immigration. They have been affected because of drug trafficking, which has increased dramatically. They have been affected because they’ve lost a key trading partner. I don’t think any country will be indifferent about Venezuela. We just have to work with them. We are respectful and have always been respectful of the position of every country in the continent about any issue that comes before the organization. That’s the way it has to be.

There have been lots of calls over the years for OAS reform and for the organization to reinvent itself. Is that reinvention taking place?

We have a very clear set of principles and values. The more closely we adhere to those principles and values, the more relevant we are. The more we work on implementation and enforcement, the more relevant we are. The organization’s greatest difficulties came when it was not able to deal with the inter-American agenda. So far, we are working on the political agenda we have to promote; we defend democracy, and promote and defend human rights. The organization will always be relevant. I was specifically asked during my campaign what I was planning to do at the OAS when the most relevant organizations are CELAC and UNASUR. Nobody is asking me that anymore. All the issues come here. Countries are coming here looking for solutions, rather than going elsewhere.

The OAS seems to have reasserted itself in the region.

We have taken on the inter-American agenda and started working on it, and that has made a big difference.

What’s next? Where do you see the organization going now?

It will depend on the new administration in 2020, but we’ll probably keep doing the same thing.

Do you see yourself serving another term?

I don’t believe in reelection. An organization needs to continually renew itself.

So, there’s no chance?

Hah! It’s a different story. I won’t present my candidacy for reelection.

And if selected, you will not serve?

Phew. If that happens, I will have to see what I do or don’t do. People should be aware of what I just said. But of course they’re aware; I know that. §

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