Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Luis Moreno | Defending democracy with diplomacy in Venezuela

Published:Sunday | June 18, 2017 | 6:00 AM

Jamaica and the United States share a deep democratic tradition. I have been fortunate to serve during an election here in Jamaica and to have seen that democratic tradition in action.

After a hard-fought campaign, there was a gracious and peaceful transfer of power, Jamaica's sixth since Independence. Our common democratic heritage has helped to bind our two countries and solidify our partnership since Jamaica's Independence in 1962.

It is our collective responsibility as democratic nations to defend human rights and democracy in Venezuela. In 2001, we adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which affirmed the right of every citizen across the hemisphere to democracy and obligated our governments to defend that right.

Unfortunately, in Venezuela today, the Maduro government has relentlessly and intentionally undermined 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 stifled by the Maduro government. The Maduro regime's increasing inability to govern the country has led to tremendous human suffering in Venezuela, caused by shortages of food, medicine, and an abysmal economy.

When a government does not respect democratic principles, we are called to join in solidarity with its people. Not through intervention or interference, but with proactive, engaged diplomacy and mediation among all parties to help find a peaceful, democratic, and comprehensive solution.

The upcoming General Assembly of the Organization of American States will provide us a forum to discuss the situation in Venezuela. Historically, the OAS has responded effectively to military coups that have usurped democratically elected governments. Today, we are witness to a crisis of democracy and human suffering 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 pro-Maduro judiciary has declared Venezuela's Congress "in contempt", stripping it of all legislative authority.

Imagine if a prime minister of Jamaica declared that he or she held sole lawmaking and executive authority? I fully expect that the Jamaican people, across party lines, would join in full-throated protest and use all constitutional means to restore democratic norms, just as the Venezuelan people are now doing.

Today in Venezuela, President Maduro is squelching an attempt to put his leadership to a vote through a recall referendum. In contrast, the late President Chavez vigorously defended Venezuelan people's right to referenda, in order to hold to governments accountable for their actions.

Both Jamaica and the United States have a long and honoured tradition of an apolitical military. Indeed, the Jamaica Defence Force and the US armed forces are among the most respected and trusted institutions in our respective countries. Yet Maduro is attacking the principle of an apolitical military. He relies increasingly on the Venezuelan military to control the economy, intimidate opponents, and suppress popular discontent.

Distressingly, 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.

Faced with a crumbling economy and massive popular dissatisfaction, the Maduro administration has called for the abandonment of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution. If his attempt succeeds, it would eliminate the current popularly elected National Assembly, the attorney general, and other existing institutions.

I call on the citizens of Jamaica to ask yourselves: If this were happening here, what would you want your democratic friends and neighbours to do? I know from my two and a half years of listening to Jamaica's vigorous democratic debates on radio and reading them spill across the pages of The Gleaner that you would expect, even demand, that our American family of nations speak out, and reach out, to help restore fundamental democratic freedoms.

We are grateful for Jamaica's help in the Organization of American States in supporting the return to democratic norms in Caracas. Jamaica, as a long-time friend of Venezuela and the Venezuelan people, plays a unique role in this process by fostering constructive dialogue in Caracas and across the region. We look forward to working with Jamaica in supporting a return to democratic norms in Caracas as we stand by the Venezuelan people's effort to reclaim their democracy.

- Luis Moreno is US ambassador to Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.