RIO DE JANEIRO – South American foreign ministers gathered in Caracas on March 6 to address the poisoned relations between Venezuela’s government and its opposition, a crisis that has roiled the Venezuelan streets and besieged President Nicolas Maduro.
The ministers’ mission — to “depolarize Venezuela,” according to Ernesto Samper, secretary general of the Union of South American Nations — is a noble one. But don’t hold your breath. Unasur called an emergency meeting a year ago to try to build a bridge between the Palacio Miraflores and the opposition. The truce didn’t last, and now Maduro has answered renewed protests with the Bolivarian boot and sometimes deadly force.
Some Latin leaders have publicly cooled to Maduro’s belief there is a yanqui cabal in every shadow, which may be one reason the Caracas parley was convened without the usual Bolivarian fanfare.
“They are speaking of foreign interference,” Uruguay’s vice president Raul Sendic told his country’s lawmakers recently. “We do not have the elements to go along with that affirmation.”
Despite those doubts, anyone looking for a bold Latin reprimand to Chavismo truculence against its critics — including serial jailing of opposition leaders — may be in for a letdown. That’s because behind the Unasur summit are a couple of cherished conceits. The first is that Latin American problems are Latin Americans’ business, and the second, that sovereignty trumps human rights.
Both tropes conspire to keep the outcome of such consorts like most continental diplomatic initiatives: isolated and anodyne.
The code of silence among Venezuela’s neighbors also speaks to less obvious concerns. Brazil is the regional wheelhouse, with nearly half of Latin America’s GDP and the ambitions of a global power broker. It also is among the most diffident governments when it comes to calling out a brutish neighbor or denouncing human rights abuses.
True, the economic crisis next door has been a bonanza for Brazil, which has big-ticket construction contracts in Venezuela and a $6 billion trade surplus. That’s a powerful argument for circumspection. But imported goods and capital also are a lifeline for cash-strapped Venezuela, which means Brasilia could easily speak up without fear of losing a good thing.
Brazil’s quietism may be part of an unwritten contract. “By toning down criticism of its neighbors, Brazil strengthened its hand as a regional power,” Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales told me.
That suggests Latin America’s silence over Venezuela’s dismal human rights record is not so much bought as consented. This may sound strange. Uruguay’s Jose Mujica spent 13 years in a dictator’s dungeon, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was tortured by the military. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet lost her father to generalissimo Augusto Pinochet’s dirty war. Still, few heads of state have been willing to speak out against their club-footed peers, whether in Cuba, Ecuador or Venezuela.
Corrales calls this “incumbency bias,” sitting leaders’ automatic defense of their peers, even those that go rogue, for fear of becoming targets of international scorn themselves. “That makes Latin leaders more interested in defending incumbents than in defending democracy,” he says.
Then there’s legacy bias. While the Latin American Cold War ended a generation ago, ideology can still make pulses race. “Latin America took a left turn starting with the election of Hugo Chavez,” Alejandro Velasco, a historian at New York University, told me. “To break the silence over Venezuela would be a tremendous loss to a powerful regional narrative of the new left in power.”
Mac Margolis (email@example.com) is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Rio de Janeiro.