Recall referendum may be only hope for Venezuela

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There comes a time when multilateral organizations that claim to promote democracy should, in fact, promote democracy. Now is the hour for the Organization of American States, and particularly for Canada as a prominent influential member.

To be sure, there are many member states within the OAS that have less-than-stellar records with human rights and democratic governance, particularly Nicaragua. However, Venezuela is beyond the pale, with locals living "a dystopian novel brought to life," as described by Marcela Albahari of Amnesty International in Caracas.

The Fraser Institute's Economic Freedom of the World Report has ranked Venezuela dead last for the past four years. Such is the depth of the country's economic crisis, comical headlines of toilet paper and beer shortages have given way to bouts of hyperinflation and medicine and food emergencies. A brief opening of the border with Colombia saw tens of thousands rush across on foot to get much-needed goods, but that was a mere respite from the hunger games.

These failures of "21st-century socialism," as promoted by the late President Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Alliance, have gone hand-in-hand with brutal authoritarianism. The Catholic Church has called the regime totalitarian, while the United Nations has expressed concern over "eroding media freedom," and the Penal Forum documents approximately 100 political prisoners.

The way out of this socialist disaster looks bleak, with a heavy Cuban presence and the key political opponent to President Nicolás Maduro a prisoner of conscious since 2014. That is Leopoldo López of the Popular Will Party, and last week the regime also kidnapped another dissident, Yon Goicoechea, who received the 2008 Milton Friedman Prize from the Cato Institute.

One glimmer of hope, to reject Chavismo and the United Socialist Party, lies in the prospect of a recall referendum. Datanálisis, a respected Venezuelan polling firm, has published that 95 per cent of residents recognize the crisis, and 74 per cent disapprove of Maduro's administration. In other words, the incumbent is vulnerable, even in a heavily rigged vote.

That is why the National Electoral Council (CNE) is dragging its feet and not permitting the referendum to proceed, but that is not the only reason. Timing is key—if the referendum takes place after Jan. 10, even if successful, Vice-president Aristóbulo Isturiz will complete the remaining two years of Maduro's term in his place.

Foul play aside, the recall process has many hoops to jump through and two steep petition targets to be met. But the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)—an opposition coalition—has undergone the arduous process and submitted the initial application with the necessary 200,000 signatures.

The CNE had 30 days to verify the signatures, before permitting a second round of signatures, but it deflected and called for an investigation into their accuracy. Sept. 1 marked the expiration of those 30 days, and the delay ignited the protest that exceeded one million participants in Caracas. They want to vote, and they deserve it.

This is why the OAS and Canada should now apply all diplomatic pressure on the Chavista regime to allow the recall process to proceed.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro of Uruguay has already called for invoking the organization's Democratic Charter (PDF), and even held a special session in June. However, there was never a final vote, since the parties present, including Canada, preferred to continue with gentle "dialogue." But dialogue overtures from the Chavista regime have for years proved to be a stalling tactic, to ward off international pressure and mass civil disobedience from the fragmented opposition.

If the OAS and Canada cannot help bring change to Venezuela and relief for beleaguered Venezuelans, as the OAS's second greatest funders, after the United States, Canadian taxpayers will have grounds to ask—why bother?


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