Many of us have praised Pope Francis for his humbleness and for his tolerance toward victims of discrimination who had long been neglected by the Vatican, but it’s time to tell him loud and clear: Get out of Venezuela.
The Vatican’s mediation effort in Venezuela has been — to use a word much in vogue in Washington these days — a disaster. It has legitimized that country’s authoritarian ruler Nicolas Maduro, throwing him a lifeline when millions of protesters were demanding his resignation on the streets in October 2016. And it has helped him get back on his feet by further cracking down on the opposition.
Several interviews with Venezuelan opposition leaders and Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro this week convinced me that the Vatican’s mediation, and the opposition coalition’s failure to officially suspend it, have become the biggest obstacles for a solution to Venezuela’s political and economic crisis.
The Vatican’s mediation alongside that of the Union of South American Nations — a group that has done virtually nothing but defend populist demagogues in the hemisphere — failed to result in any action. Maduro didn’t release Leopoldo Lopez and other prominent political prisoners, and as he has increased the overall number of political prisoners from 83 last year to 108 today, according to the Foro Penal research group’s figures.
In addition, the Maduro regime has invalidated the Venezuelan people’s constitutional right to call a recall referendum, and has taken away the most important powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
The regime also has taken away Congress’ right to impeach the president and pick members of the National Electoral Council and to approve the national budget. Nearly 80 percent of Venezuelans now oppose Maduro, according to a recent Datanalisis poll.
Venezuela is now in a catastrophic paralysis amid political and economic chaos — inflation is projected to surpass 1,000 percent this year, a world record — widespread food shortages and South America’s highest violence levels.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that, to restore democracy in Venezuela, the United States and Latin American countries should implement the OAS Democratic Charter, which calls for gradual collective diplomatic sanctions against countries that break the rule of law.
But in an interview this week, Almagro told me that his hands are tied for as long as the Vatican-UNASUR mediation remains officially alive.
“While the Vatican remains there, we will definitely not take any action to move forward with the Democratic Charter,” Almagro told me. “If they tell us that that dialogue is over, and there is a formal communication by both the opposition and the Vatican to that effect, we will restart whatever work is needed.”
He added that, as of today, the paralysis in Venezuela is a result “of the Vatican’s presence and of a wait-and-see attitude by the Venezuelan opposition.”
My opinion: Three key things should happen for Venezuela to get out of its downward spiral.
First, the Venezuelan opposition and the Vatican should officially announce that the current mediation is over. They should officially declare Venezuela a dictatorship because Maduro has broken the rule of law, especially since he stripped away all major powers from the National Assembly after the opposition won the Dec. 6, 2015, elections by a landslide.
Second, the opposition-majority Venezuelan National Assembly should officially request the OAS to activate the Democratic Charter to impose regional diplomatic sanctions on the Maduro regime. For that to happen, the OAS needs the votes of a majority of Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Third, President Donald Trump must stop insulting Mexico, and by extension all of Latin America, in order to get most countries in the region to vote for diplomatic sanctions under the OAS Democratic Charter. Otherwise, Maduro will portray himself as the victim of a U.S. plot, and most countries will not want to be seen as allies of a U.S. president who despises the region.
Unless these steps are taken, I’m afraid Venezuela will continue on its downward spiral. It’s time to put an end to this drama. Pope Francis should take the first step, and stop being an obstacle in the restoration of democratic rule in Venezuela.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may email him at email@example.com.