Venezuela is in its fourth week of massive anti-government demonstrations – and so far 21 people have been killed in the unrest.
The country has the world’s largest oil reserves, yet it’s suffering the worst economic collapse in modern Latin American history. Protesters say socialist President Nicolás Maduro’s regime has become a dictatorship.
But outside Venezuela, Maduro’s harshest critic is Luis Almagro – secretary general of the Organization of American States, or O.A.S, the western hemisphere’s U.N.
“The problem about Venezuela is that democracy completely collapsed and disappeared,” Almagro told a group of Miami Herald/WLRN News editors and reporters last week. He was in Miami to discuss the Venezuelan crisis – and he didn’t sound hopeful.
“I have never seen a country going down so fast at every level,” Almagro said. “Politically, economically, socially. Everything completely collapsed.”
A big problem for Venezuela when it comes to Almagro is that he’s no right-winger.
“I am a leftist,” he said. “I come from there and I will stay there. The thing is, the left has to be democratic.”
And this month an O.A.S resolution all but declared democracy dead in Venezuela.
Almagro is leading a push to make Maduro hold general elections that the socialists would almost surely lose. If the regime refuses, Almagro says Venezuela could be suspended from the O.A.S and its diplomatic projects. He lays the blame for Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis and violence squarely at the feet of the Maduro regime and its socialist suffocation of the country’s economy and political rights – including the detentions of more than 100 political prisoners.
“Everybody wants a solution in Venezuela,” he said. “Everybody wants the regime to end like all other dictatorships in the continent. Free the political prisoners, have elections.”
Almagro argues the O.A.S has tried to convince Venezuela, “but it was impossible for us to build any positive or constructive dialogue with them...They were too used to bully international organizations. I don’t like to be bullied.”
Asked about the Maduro government’s claim that he and the O.A.S are in reality calling for a coup in Venezuela, Almagro insisted, “There is not a coup d’état in Venezuela. Nobody is bombing Venezuela.
"What we have are people in the street asking the government to leave, because the government is unable to guarantee their rights or to be able to feed them or to take care of their health. And those people have been shot. They have been killed. So isn’t that very criminal behavior?”
A human rights cause important to Venezuelan expats in South Florida is opposition leader Leopoldo López, who recently marked his third years in a Caracas jail for leading protests.
“He’s facing a very unjust detention,” Almagro said. “All he was guilty of was being a politician who is able to put the people in the streets. And we have asked the regime to free him. When there is a political prisoner, everybody is exposed to that. So we cannot allow that.”
Almagro was reminded that the O.A.S doesn’t exactly have a great track record confronting authoritarian governments – like the right-wing regime that took over Honduras after a 2009 coup. But Almagro thinks this time the Organization’s members are getting tough.
“Imagine that just something like one month ago there only two, three countries in the continent recognizing that there were political prisoners in Venezuela,” he said. “And now we have a resolution of the permanent council accepting that.”
Almagro also had praise for the Trump Administration, which recently leveled economic sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck el Aissami for alleged drug trafficking.
The U.S., he said, “should keep applying sanctions to the individuals responsible for the corruption of the country and the violence of the country.”
Finally, Almagro chastised Cuba for giving the Venezuelan regime what he called “very bad advice.” He said Havana doesn’t understand something important about Venezuela.
“Venezuelans were a democracy for too long,” he noted. “They have too many democratic reflexes.”
Cuba’s 1962 suspension from the OAS was lifted eight years ago – but Cuba says it doesn’t want OAS membership. Almagro said that’s fine with him since Cuba isn’t a democracy yet.
“That’s like me saying that I don’t want to be the quarterback of the Miami Dolphins,” Almagro quipped. “It’s not that I don’t want. It’s that I can’t.”
On Monday, tens of thousands of protesters blocked roads and highways across Venezuela.