Special Meeting of the OAS Permanent Council on the Situation in Venezuela

Remarks
Michael J. Fitzpatrick
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Washington, DC
March 28, 2017


Thank you, Mr. Chair. Mr. Secretary General, Distinguido Vice-Canciller de Venezuela, Representantes Permanentes, Damas y caballeros: muy buenas tardes a todos y a todas.

This meeting is happening today because of the constructive spirit of a majority of member states that seeks to identify with precision – and honesty – the problems we see in Venezuela, and to pursue democratic solutions through good faith dialogue.

The United States is among them.

We are here today because we all want to promote such solutions, and because there is still a chance to pursue them before the crisis in Venezuela deepens still further. Indeed, as I recall, it was the Foreign Minister of Venezuela herself who formally placed the Venezuelan crisis on the Permanent Council’s agenda last year, and returned as recently as yesterday to provide her views. And the Member States of the OAS, in solidarity with Venezuelan democracy, remain seized of the matter.

We believe that more intensive‎, higher-level engagement by OAS member states is appropriate and could be of great service in returning Venezuela to the path of Constitutional rule, peace and prosperity.

For that to happen, it will be essential that the Venezuelan government accept the hand extended by the OAS. Unfortunately, there are few signs that Venezuela is willing to do so.

Minister Rodriguez' insistence on appearing yesterday, rather than joining us for today's session, does not bode well. Nor do the Venezuelan government's previous rejections of a role for the OAS. Nor does the Venezuelan government’s failure to seize the extraordinary opportunity of the Vatican's assistance with the UNASUR-led dialogue process last year to seek genuine solutions. Nor do the Venezuelan government’s repeated ad hominem insults and invective against regional leaders and governments.

The kind of social, economic and political deterioration we are seeing now affects all of us in different ways. The March 23 statement issued by 14 member states – representing more than 90 percent of our region's entire population – reflects our growing collective concern. And we join with many other nations today in thanking Mexico for its strong leadership in this effort.

The March 14 report of the Secretary General lays out a detailed and accurate picture of worrying developments in Venezuela. It has made an important contribution in highlighting the urgency of the situation, both for the people of Venezuela as well as for the rest of our region.

And, as the crisis deepens, as the government further delays the needed democratic opening – the opening that is in the hands of the government to provide today – the region’s solidarity, via the OAS, with the suffering people of Venezuela only grows deeper and stronger.

Taken together, several of the Venezuelan government’s serious departures from the rule of law highlighted and documented in the Secretary General's report of March 14 appear to constitute an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in Venezuela. These include the Executive Branch's rejection of the legitimate role of the National Assembly, the unlawful assumption of key legislative functions by the Supreme Court and the failure to hold gubernatorial elections as required in 2016 -- to say nothing of the squashing of the national referendum.

Just today, we are seeing press reports from Caracas that the government-controlled TSJ, the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, yesterday – while the Foreign Minister was here with us – limited the immunity for members of the freely-elected National Assembly, the National Assembly already declared illegal by the government.

In the wake of the Minister’s appearance yesterday, and the unsuccessful attempt to quash today’s meeting, the timing and content are a clear signal: OAS developments may carry local repercussions for opposition lawmakers, particularly those who, through travel and other activity, have associated themselves with multilateral activity the current government of Venezuela considers hostile.

Once aberrations of this gravity begin, we do not know where they will end, so we need to act with urgency and clarity of purpose. For, as the old saying goes, the whole world is watching.

This is an important day for the OAS, which is fulfilling its responsibilities to safeguard democracy and democratic institutions in the Americas.

Venezuela is duty bound to act consistently with its undertakings under the OAS Charter, the Democratic Charter, the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, and other important hemispheric instruments to which it has freely associated itself.

In particular, we urge the Venezuelan government to comply with its constitution. President Maduro should permit the democratically-elected National Assembly to perform its constitutional functions, and should hold elections as soon as possible.

The United States calls for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience – los presos politicos – in Venezuela, including Leopoldo Lopez.

As our governments gather here to argue and debate these important issues, it is also important that we not forget who is actually paying the price, quien paga la cuenta: The people of Venezuela.

Este fin de semana, aqui en Washington, y antes de escuchar a la ministra venezolana ayer, un cantante venezolano en exilio nos recordo a todos algo fundamental, durante un concierto publico – una celebracion de la musica, del pensamiento libre y de la libertad de expresion. Franco de Vita – una voz mas entre los cientos de miles de venezolanos que han huido del pais – nos recordo con claridad: “La libertad es un derecho fundamental para todos los seres humanos.”

And on behalf of my own government, let me just add: La represion politica y la recesion economica deben ceder el lugar a la restitucion democratica y la recuperacion economica. Ya.

For a member state cannot indefinitely ignore the democratic values and commitments so dear to this venerable body and its member states, and yet continue to participate fully within it. If it does, it does meaningful harm to itself, to its people, and to our organization as well.

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. A number of options have been floated about by any number of Member States here today and in recent days about how best to proceed. To name just a few examples, we have heard proposals for the establishment of a Group of Friends; of the possibility of sending a delegation to Venezuela to speak with and listen to all the various elements involved; as I myself mentioned earlier and as was also suggested yesterday by others following Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s intervention: We ought to consider elevating the political level of discussion within the OAS; we’ve heard today of the proposal by Mexico, and supported by others, for an ongoing Mesa de Trabajo to meet on at least a monthly basis to track progress and consider next steps.

There is also a proposal for a Permanent Council briefing by a representative of the former presidents involved in last year’s formal dialogue process to explain why that process is stymied; and we have even been reminded here today of the recommendations put forward in 2002 by then OAS Secretary General Gaviria.

This is hard work. It will not be accomplished overnight. But it can succeed, with political will, good faith and solidarity among all concerned.

The United States remains open to considering any of these proposals and all other tools available to the OAS and the Permanent Council of the OAS in pursuing a peaceful, democratic solution to the crisis in Venezuela.

Mr. Chair, the United States remains committed to working with other OAS member states on this very grave matter of concern to us all, as members of this Organization, as friends of the Venezuelan people, and in solidarity with their democracy. I assure you that we – and the Permanent Council of the OAS – will continue to remain seized by this matter.

Thank you very much. Muchisimas gracias.