of occasional commentaries on important
policy issues affecting Latin
America and the Caribbean.
April 14, 2003
Situation and the Role of the OAS
Dr. James Ferrer, Jr. and Eduardo Segatore1
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
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
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.
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