CLAI Commentary

A series of occasional commentaries on important
policy issues affecting
Latin America and the Caribbean.
April 14, 2003

Venezuela's Situation and the Role of the OAS

By Dr. James Ferrer, Jr. and Eduardo Segatore1


After the end of the general strike in February and signs that the crisis in Venezuela was cooling down, the situation seemed to be deteriorating. Troubling signs emerged that the political atmosphere in Venezuela was still dangerously polarized and that the government was taking increasingly authoritarian measures. Fortunately, on April 11, the opposition and the Chavez government signed an accord, under the auspices of the Organization of American States, to work together to organize a referendum and to disarm the civilian society. This agreement could be a very positive step towards finally reestablishing peace in Venezuela.

   The current tension began in late February with the arrest of Carlos Fernández, president of Fedecámaras. Carlos Fernández was one of the main organizers of the general strike that began last December and lasted two months. The attorney general charged him with treason, civil rebellion and instigating delinquency. Furthermore, when Carlos Fernández’ lawyers were denied access to his arrest files, the opposition in Venezuela began to fear that the administration was pressuring the courts to deny Fernández due process. Judge Gisela Hernández eventually dropped the charge of treason and Mr. Fernández was placed under house arrest. When his health began to decline, he was transferred to a hospital and, on March 20, was released from confinement. A legal representative of the Public Ministry, however, is appealing the decision granting Carlos Fernández his freedom.

   Fearing the government has an increasingly authoritarian tone, the opposition has been quite wary. On March 14th, Carlos Ortega, president of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela and another organizer of the last general strike, sought and gained asylum in the Costa Rican Embassy. He claimed that he feared for his life and wanted to be granted political refuge in Costa Rica. After two weeks of negotiations, the Venezuelan government granted him safe conduct.

   Moreover, President Chavez appeared to be lashingout against the international community on several occasions. The most unfortunate incident involved César Gaviria, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Since the coup attempt of April 2002, Dr. Gaviria has led the international effort to resolve political tensions in Venezuela. When Dr. Gaviria expressed concern about the arrest of Carlos Fernández, President Chavez stated that Venezuela was a sovereign nation and the Secretary General of the OAS should “stay in his place.” Chavez also responded to comments by Spanish Prime Minister Aznar, who had expressed concern about the Fernández arrest. Chavez stated that Aznar should respect Venezuela’s sovereignty, accused Aznar of applauding the April 2002 coup attempt, and said that the government of Venezuela did not comment publicly when the government of Aznar closed down a Basque nationalist newspaper.

   The fact that Venezuela has refused to classify the guerrilla groups in Colombia as terrorists is causing considerable preoccupation, although both governments declare that relations are excellent. When Fernando Lodoño, Colombia’s Minister of Interior, expressed disappointment at the fact that Venezuela had not declared the FARC and the ELN to be terrorist groups, President Chavez qualified the remarks as “abrupt” and “irresponsible.” There have been allegations, which are being investigated by the Colombian government, that the guerrillas have been using Venezuela as a base to launch their attacks. More troubling are allegations that Venezuelan military aircraft bombed paramilitary positions near the Colombian town of La Gabarra (near the Venezuela-Colombia border), in support of a FARC advance.

   Given the background of tension and distrust, the accord reached on April 11, between the government and the opposition, is a very positive step towards a peaceful solution. The Organization of American States, whose role in the negotiations was pivotal, must retain a strong “presence” in the country. It must ensure that the accord are is fully implemented, that the referendum is executed in an orderly and transparent manner, and that the Venezuelan authorities (in the opposition and in the government) properly disarm the civilian forces. In the last year the Organization of American States has been very important in ensuring a democratic process in Venezuela. It must, with the firm and outspoken support of its member states, continue to play this very important role.

1 The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Issues or The George Washington University