Trump may weaken OAS – and effort to restore democracy in Venezuela

Just when the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) is beginning to champion regional efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela, the Trump administration is proposing drastic U.S. budget cuts for international organizations that could paralyze the institution.

President Trump is asking Congress to cut 50 percent of U.S. funding for the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which pays the U.S.’s dues to the United Nations, the OAS and other international and regional groups, according to news reports first disclosed by Foreign Policy magazine.

The cuts would be part of a 37 percent slashing of the State Department budget. At the same time, the Trump administration is asking Congress for a $54 billion increase in military spending, U.S. officials say.

Leaving aside the fact that diplomacy and “soft power” are much cheaper and effective than military spending, Trump’s proposed cuts in funding for international organizations could hardly come at a worse time for Latin America.

After decades of irrelevance under previous leaderships, the 34-country OAS has become the region’s best option to restore democracy in Venezuela.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has taken the lead in asking Latin American countries to apply the organization’s Democratic Charter against Venezuela’s authoritarian regime, which would bring about collective regional pressure for free elections in that country.

Earlier this week, Almagro asked OAS member countries to give the Venezuelan regime a 30-day ultimatum to convene general elections and free political prisoners. If Venezuela does not comply, OAS member countries should suspend that country from the organization, Almagro said.

Regional diplomatic sanctions are the most effective way to apply pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, because — unlike public statements from Washington, which he can quickly dismiss as “imperialist” aggressions — they would embarrass and delegitimize the Venezuelan ruler in the eyes of his own people, diplomats say.

In recent years, regional diplomatic sanctions brought about the downfall of authoritarian governments and free elections in Peru and Honduras.

But the OAS is already operating on a shoestring budget after a 12 percent cut last year. The organization would be crippled if forced to undergo new round of budget cuts, OAS officials told me this week.

The United States contributes $50 million a year to the OAS budget, followed by Brazil with nearly $11 million and Canada with $9 million. But the U.S. annual dues to the OAS are a drop in the bucket when compared with the nearly $3 billion in U.S. annual contributions to United Nations peacekeeping forces and U.N. agencies.

With its limited budget, the OAS regularly monitors murky elections. It has recently observed elections in Haiti, and will monitor and do a quick count in Ecuador’s highly-contested April 2 runoff election.

In addition, the OAS coordinates regional anti-drug and anti-corruption efforts, and its Human Rights Commission looks into human rights abuses.

“It would be a terrible mistake to cut funding for the OAS,” says Roger Noriega, a conservative who led the State Department’s Western Hemisphere affairs office under the George W. Bush administration. “The United States would be decimating the one organization that can probably help Venezuela and many other countries.”

My opinion: Granted, the OAS has its own problems and contradictions. I find it hard to understand, for instance, why Almagro seeks to suspend Venezuela from the organization while at the same time calling for the readmission of Cuba, a dictatorship that has not allowed free elections or independent political parties in nearly six decades.

But, beyond its contradictions, the OAS under Almagro has become a much needed player in regional affairs. It is championing the cause of democracy and human rights in Venezuela and several other countries.

We all know that Trump doesn’t care much about Latin America — his State Department has not yet appointed an official in charge of regional affairs, and most of Trump’s statements about the region have been limited to lashing out against Mexico and Mexicans — but defunding the OAS would be a big mistake. Instead of cutting its funds, Trump should increase them, and bolster diplomatic efforts to defend democracy in the region.

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español