The most surprising thing about the decision by Uruguay’s governing Frente Amplio to expel Luis Almagro following his justification for military intervention in Venezuela is that it took them this long.
Luis Almagro is the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose tenure is best defined by the quasi-evangelical zeal with which he has condemned and sought to delegitimise the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro. On 15 December, Uruguay’s Frente Amplio (Broad Front) government announced it had finally had enough after Almagro had advocated Maduro’s removal by any means necessary, including force. Almagro was previously Uruguay’s Foreign Minister from 2010 until 2015 under the Frente Amplio government of José Mujica.
For the Frente Amplio, a long-standing ally of Venezuela, the final straw was a press conference on 15 September. ‘With regards to military intervention to overthrow Nicolás Maduro, I believe that we must not rule out any option’, Almagro said then. He doubled down in an interview published five days later, offering the Rwandan genocide, in which around 800,000 people were killed, as a comparable example of what inaction can produce.
Almagro’s implication that bombing Venezuela was a potentially justifiable course of action echoed growing belligerence within the US political right, which for two decades has failed to depose chavismo through various other means and now sees few alternatives to the tried and tested method of military aggression. ‘We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary’, said Donald Trump in August 2017. Republican senator Marco Rubio has also called for a coup d’état or US military intervention to remove Maduro. Most recently, on 1 November US national security adviser John Bolton labelled Venezuela part of a ‘troika of tyranny’ alongside Cuba and Nicaragua, purposefully evoking the war-hungry ‘Axis of Evil’ discourse employed by George W Bush’s administration.
This continues a pattern of hostile rhetoric towards the region’s leftwing governments, despite recent state-backed human rights violations in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Honduras and elsewhere. The difference in these cases is that they are neoliberal governments closely aligned to the Washington axis (or, in Mexico’s case, it was until a few weeks ago). Almagro’s rhetoric since his OAS appointment in May 2015 has largely resembled a proxy voice for US foreign policy in Latin America, maintaining the organisation’s decades-long reputation as a vehicle for expanding Washington’s regional interests. His recommendation for a vote recount following apparently-rigged elections in Honduras in 2017, which saw the rightwing government returned to power despite strong suspicion of voter fraud, was one of the few occasions he diverted from the script.
The Frente Amplio has governed Uruguay since 2005, during which it has reduced poverty, boosted the national economy and implemented progressive social reforms. Uruguay became one of the very few places in Latin America to legalise abortion and the only country in the world to legalise the open sale of marijuana. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, it has the strongest labour rights in the world outside of Europe (ahead of Canada and Australia, and way ahead of the USA). Uruguay has worked closely with other progressive governments elected in Latin America during the late 1990s and 2000s and, so far, resisted the conservative swing taken by its influential neighbour Argentina in 2015 and subsequently elsewhere in the region.
As Uruguay’s foreign minister, Almagro was central to the government decision to receive six freed Guantanamo Bay prisoners in 2014 and repealed amnesty laws for human rights abusers from the country’s dictatorship. He was elected as OAS Secretary General in May 2015, having promised to introduce greater accountability and transparency to the organisation. However, he was disavowed by Mujica in November that year after accusing the Venezuelan government of fixing upcoming parliamentary elections and violating human rights. ‘I regret the course you have taken and I know it’s irreversible, so I am bidding you farewell’, Mujica told his former minister.
Long mistrusted throughout Latin America as, in the words of Fidel Castro, a ‘US Trojan Horse’, the OAS’ influence faded during the ‘Pink Tide’ rise of leftwing governments, as new multilateral institutions such as UNASUR and ALBA fostered regional integration, economic sovereignty and political independence. The OAS was founded in 1948 ostensibly to develop cooperation between the nation states of the Americas. Its founding charter lists eight core purposes, which include promotion of dialogue, democracy and peaceful resolution of dispute, as well as a principle of non-intervention in member states’ sovereign affairs.
Almagro’s justification of military action in Venezuela violated his own organisation’s charter and, once again, contradicted the Frente Amplio’s formal support for Maduro. According to Frente Amplio vice-president José Carlos Mahía, ‘it is one thing to have a political position on the situation in Venezuela or other countries in Latin America, and a very different one to, from a position which should generate consensus in the Americas, to be actively against one of the countries and, additionally, with visions which absolutely serve the United States in which there was even sympathy for an eventual invasion’.
The US regional project to reassert its dominance has been emboldened by the political right’s recent revival in Latin America. Previously surrounded by allies (with the exception of Colombia, Washington’s strategic bulwark against chavismo), Venezuela today finds itself increasingly isolated amid the re-establishment of rightwing regimes eager to demonstrate deference to Washington both at home and abroad. Domestically, this involves reopening national territory to the US military presence and selling off natural resources and state industries while entrenching neoliberal policies that reverse the redistributive programmes initiated by the Pink Tide governments of the 2000s. Internationally, this invariably means backing Israel and increasing pressure on Venezuela.
Some regional diplomats have eulogised Almagro’s selective outspokenness. ‘Dr Almagro has returned the OAS to respectability. His was the one voice who dared denounce the atrocities of Venezuela’, said Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, in 2016. Uribe’s 2002-2010 administration was notable for widespread state atrocities and paramilitary collusion throughout national politics, not least within Uribe’s inner circle. Nevertheless, his hostility towards Hugo Chávez and willingness to crush domestic resistance to elite interests made him Washington’s main guy in the region.
Although it might appear incongruous that the head of a multilateral and supposedly-equal partnership consistently aligns with certain members, rather than provide objective mediation in disputes, Almagro’s open push for regime change in Latin America (where the US has a long history of toppling elected governments) complemented other acts of ingratiation with the political right. This has bordered, at times, on the absurd. Following the recent election of neofascist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – a man whose greatest regret about his country’s military dictatorship was that it failed to murder enough people – Almagro tweeted that ‘we applaud his message of truth and peace’. Such distortions of reality, and a perceived tendency to blame anything on Caracas no matter how tenuous, have invited ridicule for Almagro on social media, as with the parody ‘Luis AlmUgrE’ Twitter account.
However, with Latin America’s political pendulum having swung firmly to the right, Almagro can rest assured that his ongoing stance against Venezuela – as well as Nicaragua – will be met with overall approval. Should war in Venezuela become a reality, history is unlikely to be so kind.