Op-Ed: Defending Democracy with Diplomacy in Venezuela

By U.S. Charge d’Affaires Lisa Johnson

The Bahamas and the United States share a deep democratic tradition. With the most recent elections in The Bahamas, I witnessed first-hand the power of that democracy and the dedication of the Bahamian people to that tradition. With nearly 90% voter turnout, there is no doubt Bahamians enjoy their democratic freedoms. After a hard fought campaign, there was a gracious and peaceful transfer of power. Unfortunately, the situation Venezuelans face today is polar opposite.  The Maduro Government relentlessly and intentionally undermines the other Constitutional branches of government from the inside. Since opposition parties won a majority of seats in 2015, Venezuela’s National Assembly has been systematically smothered by the Maduro government.

Democratic nations have the responsibility to collectively defend democracy in Venezuela.  In 2001, the OAS adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Not only did we affirm the right of every citizen across the hemisphere to democracy, we obligated our governments to defend that right.

When a government breaks with democracy, we must join in solidarity with its people.  Not through intervention or interference, but with diplomacy and mediation among all parties to help find a peaceful, democratic, and comprehensive solution.

June 16-20, at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, democratic nations have opportunity to discuss the death spiral of democracy in Venezuela.  Historically, the OAS has responded effectively to military coups, which usurped democratically-elected governments.  Today, we are witness to something insidious in Caracas. Citing vague, unproven claims of electoral fraud, allegedly committed by three legislators, the government has denied the legislative branch the right to pass laws and the captive judiciary has declared Venezuela’s Congress “in contempt,” stripping it of all legislative authority.

Faced with a crumbling economy and massive popular dissatisfaction, the Maduro regime is now destroying the last vestiges of the democratic order.  The government has called for a constituent assembly to abandon the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution spearheaded by Hugo Chavez. My government certainly had strong disagreements with the late President Chavez, but Maduro is trying to instantly wipe away the current National Assembly, the Attorney General, and other existing institutions. This would trample on popular suffrage and rob the people of their clearly expressed democratic wishes from 2015.

Both our countries can appreciate our strong, respected and apolitical militaries. Yet Maduro constantly undermines the Venezuela’s military, increasing his reliance on them to control the economy, intimidate opponents, and suppress popular discontent.  More than 331 Venezuelan civilians are being held and prosecuted by military courts in secret trials. Venezuela’s own Attorney General, appointed by Chavez in 2007, has condemned the trials and the military has refused her access to the prisoners.

The Bahamas and the United States have a long history of collaboration against the trafficking of drugs, arms, and human, but Maduro threatens to undermine our hard work. The spillover effects from Venezuela’s crisis are serious and growing, whether it is irregular migrant flows to countries in our region or the increasing flows of arms and criminal activity that affect the Caribbean in particular.  All our countries have a direct stake in finding a negotiated solution that restores the rule of law and economic prosperity to our troubled neighbor.

I call on the citizens of The Bahamas to ask themselves:  if this were happening here, what would you want your democratic friends and neighbors to do? I know from my three years of listening and watching political debates on radio and newspapers and peaceful protests in your streets, you would expect, even demand, that our American family of nations speak out, and reach out, to help restore fundamental democratic freedoms.

The General Assembly of the Organization of American States is the venue for us to unify as a region and act to foster negotiations in Caracas to return to a respect for democracy, end the polarizing violence, and help the Venezuelan people reclaim their democratic rights and their power.