The mood was celebratory; representatives from 33 countries in the region, including several heads of state, had arrived in Caracas, Venezuela. The motive was the first meeting of the newly formed Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC for its acronym in Spanish).
Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, who postponed this encounter for six months as he received treatment for cancer, held court over the regional assembly. For two days, in pomp and circumstance inside Venezuela’s most important military base, the participating heads of state discussed their newest club – this one set up explicitly to exclude the United States and Canada.
The CELAC should be “a political union upon which we will build a new pole of power for the 21st century,” said Chávez. “As the years go by, the CELAC will leave behind the old and worn-down Organization of American States.”
While the OAS has its faults – most notably its consensus-based decision-making, which forces it to gravitate to the poles of greatest influence (which in these days is, ironically, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alliance, the same organization calling for its destruction), its charters, conventions and courts still play an important role in articulating a standard for democracy and human liberty that countries in the Americas should meet.
CELAC’s final declaration was not surprising, considering the venue and rhetoric. It included the tired call to end the “blockade” of Cuba.
CELAC’s new members, which include all the countries of the hemisphere except the U.S. and Canada, also discussed a “Democratic clause,” which would bind member governments to reject any “coup d’états” upon other governments.
Advanced most emphatically by Ecuador, this is clearly an attempt to provide political protection for governments that participate in the Bolivarian Alliance – another Chávez-led project to instill a so-called “21st century socialism” across the hemisphere and whose radical, anti-democratic political agendas make them vulnerable to internal revolutions.
Conspicuously missing from the clause are references to separation of powers, representative democracy, transparent elections or civil and political rights.
None of this should come as a surprise.
A short distance from this summit – at the same time – a different Venezuelan story was being told in Costa Rica, headquarters for the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.
There, the court was finally hearing the case of Raúl Díaz Peña, first submitted to the Inter-American system in 2005.
Díaz Peña is a political activist and a former Venezuelan political prisoner who is currently seeking asylum in the United States after his escape from Caracas.
“They tortured me. . .at the political police headquarters; three times they put my head in a plastic bag and filled it with insecticide,” was part of the testimony that Peña gave to the court via video conference from Miami.
In testimony last week, Díaz Peña told of how, after his detention in February 2004, he was tortured with two other detainees – Germán Delgado and Juan Carlos Sánchez. Their bodies were found in September of that same year on the outskirts of Caracas, allegedly killed in standoffs with the police.
Díaz Peña was accused of placing two small explosive devices in front of the Spanish and Colombian embassies.
According to the Venezuelan government, this was part of a plot to overthrow Chávez – emanating from the 2002-2003 political crises, which included marches, a long national strike, and an oil strike leading up to the recall referendum against Chávez in August of 2004.
In May of 2010, Díaz Peña was released on a parole regime where he was allowed to spend weekends and days outside but had to return to prison for weeknights.
After the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) at the Organization of American States offices in Washington D.C. announced the referral of his case to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, Díaz Peña was re-arrested. He claims to have been tortured again by the political police – this time demanding he withdraw his case against the Venezuelan government.
He chose to flee to Miami instead.
The court, which found sufficient evidence of Díaz Peña’s claims that his trial and detention in Venezuela did not meet the standards set in the American Convention on the Rights and Duties of Man, is part of “the old OAS,” which Chávez is so desperate to see ended.
It is very clear why.
According to Patricia Andrade, president of the Venezuela Awareness Foundation – the NGO that shepherded this case through the Inter-American System – “Díaz Peña is the reflection of thousands of Venezuelans who have had to seek political asylum, and the hundreds of citizens jailed [in Venezuela] for political motivation. We trust that justice will prevail.”
Tales like this are increasingly common in the hemisphere, where the desire for personal power too often trumps the fundamental rights of the citizens.
It is for this reason that the regional court system is so important. It is also the reason why the hemispheric community must stand firmly behind its commitments to democracy and freedom.
From the CELAC discussions last week, it is clear that private citizens – those for whom the Inter-American system was built – will find no protection from the new body or its so-called “democratic clause.”
Joel D. Hirst is a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets at www.twitter.com/joelhirst
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