Republican congressmen in the House of Representatives are calling for stiff economic sanctions against the Organization of American States (OAS) for not invoking the Democratic Charter against Nicaragua and Venezuela.
By a vote of 6:1, members of the House’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee voted Thursday to approve a bill to withhold 20% of U.S. funding for the OAS for every permanent council meeting that they don’t invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter (Article 20) against Nicaragua and Venezuela.
“Under this legislation, every time the OAS has an opportunity to uphold freedom and democracy by enforcing its Democratic Charter, and decides not to—the U.S. will save approximately $11 million,” said Subcommittee Chairman Connie Mack (R-FL), during yesterday’s markup hearing. “If no action is taken to address individual Member States’ gross noncompliance with the OAS Democratic Charter, the United States will have saved $57 million by the end of 2012.”
The original wording of the bill mentioned only Venezuela. But Congressman David Rivera (R-FL), who represents a large constituency of Nicaraguan-Americans living in Miami, proposed an amendment to include Nicaragua.
The Rivera amendment, also approved by a 6:1 vote, states as fact, “The 2011 Nicaraguan presidential elections were neither free nor fair.”
“Nicaragua has recently taken some very undemocratic actions,” Rivera said.
Republican backers of the legislative initiative claim it is not intended to kill the OAS, rather spur the organization into action by giving it financial incentive to do its job and uphold its mission statement. The United States pays for 60% of the OAS’ annual budget, so a 20% slash in funding would be strong “incentive”—if not an ultimatum.
“The OAS is unable to take concrete actions to fix its flaws without outside pressure,” said Chairman Mack. “Within the past year, the OAS has failed to stand with the people of Venezuela and Nicaragua, while two years ago it was hypocritically punishing Honduras within days of that country’s decision to stand on the side of freedom.”
Mack added, “There is absolutely no excuse for a statement by Secretary General (Miguel) Insulza supporting the Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega’s sham election as a ‘Step forward for democracy.’ While the OAS later withdrew the statement, the harm was already done.”
Democrats, however, wonder why the Republicans are blowing the whistle on the OAS when the fouls were committed by Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Democratic congressman Eliot Engel, the only dissenting vote in yesterday’s House Subcommittee, said he has little sympathy for the undemocratic actions by the governments of Venezuela or Nicaragua, but said punishing the OAS for the behavior of a few wayward member states is like “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
“I continue to believe that the OAS, with all its problems and all its flaws, is still the best thing we have going to ensure democracy in the Western Hemisphere,” Engel said. “If we don’t have the OAS, what are we going to replace it with?”
Engel noted that the U.S. Congress would probably be doing Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez a favor by further weakening the OAS and unintentionally fertilizing the soil for the germination of his Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)—a Venezuelan-propped Latin American organization that includes Cuba but excludes the United States and Canada. Both Chávez and Ortega have said they hope CELAC replaces the OAS as the new governing forum for Latin America.
“We are doing Chávez’s bidding,” Engle said. “He wants the OAS killed and we are doing it for him here today.”
The Republican bill will now pass to the full House Foreign Affairs Committee, where it’s expected to find strong backing by conservative Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who earlier this week called for the U.S. State Department to investigate Iran’s growing influence and activity in the Western Hemisphere, including in Nicaragua.
From there, the bill would go to the floor of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where it could also pass if the vote falls along partisan lines. The bill could even pick up some bipartisan support among Democrats who back it as a budget-saving measure.
Even then, congressional sources consulted by The Nicaragua Dispatch say even the most ambitious Republican congressmen don’t expect the bill to pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
However, if the bill makes it through the House of Representatives intact, it could still achieve its intended goal even without becoming a law.
With the OAS already in a precarious political and financial pickle, the threat alone of crippling budget cuts might be enough to prompt the emasculated organization to sit up straight and reassert its keep as the hemisphere’s democratic watchdog. And if the OAS is feeling desperate to show it still has a purpose, it might do so by taking a stronger stance against Nicaragua—a position that would probably elicit far fewer international squeals of protest than were they to go after Venezuela.
Regardless of what happens in the OAS, the fact that Republican congressmen have turned their frustration and disquietude with Ortega into a legal initiative shows last month’s hullabaloo in the Foreign Affairs Committee was not just an afternoon of lip service that lawmakers have already forgotten amid holiday shopping sales.
Sources on Capitol Hill say the Nicaragua situation has not fallen off the radar. In fact, some say, it has taken on a new sense of urgency following the scandalous parliamentary elections in Russia earlier this month.
Indeed, there is a growing sense among U.S. lawmakers that Washington needs to take a stronger stance against the backwards slide of struggling democracies in countries like Nicaragua and Russia—erstwhile cold war nemeses whose tentative advances towards democracy in the past two decades appear to be stalling.
Republican threats of economic sanctions against an already weakened OAS may be a dubious strategy for strengthening democracy in the hemisphere. Yet it’s a risk the Republicans seem eager to take.
If it backfires, the aging OAS may be sent up the hill for early dinners in assisted living, while CELAC—the new kid on the block sporting a greaser hairdo—will come on as the next generation of hemispheric organization. That would weaken the U.S.’ position even more in Latin America—a diplomatic hara-kiri on the Republican’s swift sword.
Ortega and Chávez couldn’t script a better scenario if they tried.