The Summit of the Americas’s Big Themes: Corruption and Venezuela Easier Said Than Done

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Though not often given much attention as part of our foreign policy agenda, an important gathering of the heads of state of the Western Hemisphere took place last weekend. This was the 8th Summit of the Americas, a forum initiated by president Bill Clinton in 1994. President Trump was scheduled to attend, but due to last minute circumstances, Vice President Pence went instead. The Summit was designed to deal with issues relevant to the current state of the region; discussions this time centered on the crisis in Venezuela and the issue of corruption and good governance.

The problem of corruption and governance is one of the root causes that plague many Latin American countries. This serious problem has existed since countries in the region obtained their independence. In other words, it is a congenital disease. Participants at the Summit agreed on a joint statement making a commitment to confront systemic corruption.

Nowadays, the subject of corruption has returned to the table because of the wave of anti-corruption measures taken by heroic judges, particularly in Brazil after the Lava Jato Operation (Car Wash Operation) where public officials and executives awarded contracts to construction firms at inflated prices and accepted bribes from these companies. That investigation led by Brazilian judge Sergio Moro not only ultimately sent former popular Brazilian president Luis Inazio “Lula” Da Silva and several others to prison, but had repercussions all across the region.

In Peru, the president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, was forced to resign. In Uruguay, the vice-president Raul Sendic also resigned over a relatively minor instance of corruption. Also, the former president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, has been indicted for obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

Despite these accomplishments, justice has a long way to go before it is properly served. Across the region current presidents such as Michel Temer are under serious suspicions of corruption and obstruction of justice. However, the Brazilian congress voted to save Temer from those charges. However, he remains under suspicion as his popularity is very low (3% public support). Former Peruvian president, Alejandro Toledo, is also under suspicion of receiving bribe money from Oderbrecht, the main Brazilian construction company involved in the scandals that engulfed the region. In Central America corruption is likely to remain rampant for a long time. The list is long.

The declaration against corruption is not going to solve the problem of government corruption any more that it will solve the problem of unaccountability, lack of judicial independence, illicit enrichment or drug trafficking. When the first Summit took place in 1994, the issue was also discussed but nothing really moved forward. Therefore, it is up to each country’s society to fight against corruption and refuse to accept corruption and criminality as the norm.

At this point, there is no reason to trust the leaders of these countries, whether they are from the right or the left. It is up to the lawyers, the judges, the media and people of conscience to push for fair investigations and prosecutions of those whose fraudulent acts encourage theft, drug trafficking and unchecked criminality. A club of presidents making declarations is symbolic but meaningless if civil society waits for them to act. No better example than judge Moro in Brazil, whose actions served as the epicenter for a set of prosecutions and government resignations all across the continent. For too long, Latin American people expected their leaders to do the right thing. They should not hold any illusions. They should begin the push for change and make their leaders accountable.

On the issue of Venezuela, the Summit proved to be better than previous ones. Venezuela, Cuba and the rest of their allies remained isolated in the region in contrast with the 2012 summit. However, the region failed to come up with a consensual statement or with any clear practical measures to help stop the agony of the Venezuelan people. Yet, sixteen countries rejected the farce elections conveyed by Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro next month and urged him to hold free and fair elections, allow the opposition to participate and release political prisoners.  (Maduro obviously will not comply with this request.)

The most energetic of all was the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, who after a highly controversial peace agreement with the FARC guerillas mediated by Cuba and Venezuela, pledged to remain “implacable” towards Venezuela’s “oppressive regime.” Ecuador, whose government has been allied with Venezuela for an entire decade, is now slowly but safely moving away from the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA).

Bolivia, along with Nicaragua and Cuba, remain Venezuela’s only allies and are now isolated in their defense of the Venezuelan government.

With regard to the United States, Vice President Mike Pence was there along with Senator Marco Rubio, who is considered to be the main architect of U.S. policy in the region. Pence was energetic with regard to Venezuela, and his presence was a display of leadership. The U.S. also pledged financial aid to help the Colombian government deal with the crisis of Venezuelan refugees and promised to increase sanctions against the Venezuelan regime and called for further diplomatic pressure and more isolation of Venezuela. Pence also met with Venezuelan and Cuban dissidents and expressed support for humanitarian aid to Venezuela. That is definitely an improvement from the ineffective way in which the Obama Administration dealt with the Venezuelan regime.

However, these actions should not be a one-time shot. Pence needs to make sure that everything he stated moves to rapid implementation. Consensus on the isolation of Venezuela has been achieved. But Pence needs to move beyond and begin to build consensus to push Latin American countries to impose sanctions on Venezuela. So far, the regional countries that have imposed sanctions on Venezuela besides the U.S. are Canada, Mexico, Colombia and Panama. Missing in this effort are all other Latin American countries. Moving forward the Trump administration should put pressure on the 16 countries that are part of the coalition that supports democracy in Venezuela to impose sanctions. Brazil and Argentina should be called on do so as well.

Outside the region, all the countries of the European Union imposed sanctions on key Venezuelan individuals responsible for human rights violations or violations of the rule of law and democratic government. Other countries joined the sanctions including Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and most recently Switzerland.

Sixty-three countries opposed to the sanctions include Russia, China, Iran, Syria and North Korea. This shows the magnitude and importance of the Venezuelan crisis. It is a battle between two different worlds. Almost like a “To be” or “not to be.”

The strategy on Venezuela needs to be developed with care and rationality. The next step must be a full oil embargo and the possibility of a naval blockade against the country, a strategy I already laid out elsewhere.

The actions and leadership of Mike Pence should be commended but there must be an immediate continuity with actions implemented. The Venezuelan people are counting on it, and as it is, much time has already been wasted.

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