The Miami Herald
June 5, 2007
Thirty-four hemispheric nations will debate how to react to Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez's decision to take over a television station.
PANAMA CITY -- A 34-nation hemispheric gathering that was supposed to celebrate an agreement to cooperate on energy issues instead veered into the politics of Venezuela's provocative President Hugo Chávez.
The annual General Assembly of the Organization of American States that began with the opening ceremonies in Panama Sunday comes just a week after Chávez refused to renew the broadcast license of an opposition TV station, making almost certain that freedom-of-expression issues would loom large in the Panamanian capital.
Watchdog groups say taking RCTV off the air constituted the most forceful attack on independent media in Latin America by the executive branch in recent times, testing the ability of OAS member-states to enforce the democratic principles they espouse.
The left-wing Chávez accuses RCTV of coup-mongering and representing the interests of ''oligarchs,'' but his decision has brought him a flood of condemnation, from the legislative branches of the United States and Brazil to the European Union.
''There seems to be a line that Chávez has crossed,'' said Peter Hakim, who presides over the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank. Hakim says Chávez has been successfully centralizing power by ''biting in small pieces'' and calculated the RCTV issue would blow over.
''But this,'' he said, ``is no one-day story.''
RCTV, which is airing its newscasts on Colombia's Caracol cable television signal and youtube.com, had several journalists at the conference, who handed out DVDs defending their case and wore T-shirts reading ``The Venezuelan government wants to shut us up.''
Chávez has gone on the offensive, saying he acted legally and what his government did with TV frequencies was no foreigner's business. When the Brazilian Senate complained, he called it a ''parrot'' of Washington. This drew a rare rebuke of Venezuela by Brazil's moderate socialist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
OAS insiders doubt oil-rich Venezuela will be reprimanded, even mildly, in a formal statement, since foreign ministers are reluctant to discuss a contentious resolution in a public setting.
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrives today, and foreign ministers of several countries like Canada and Costa Rica are likely to complain ''in very explicit terms'' in their speeches, said one OAS diplomat who asked to remain anonymous in order to talk freely about delicate issues. Other nations like Chile might make ''generic'' pronouncements over the need to preserve basic human rights like the freedom of expression, the diplomat said.
Any mention of RCTV, especially by Rice, is likely to draw an angry rebuke from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela dispatched a big 48-member delegation that often tussles with U.S. diplomats and its allies over language in resolutions. Brazil, by contrast, fielded just eight delegates.
Countries might also wait for a pronouncement on RCTV from the Costa Rica-based Interamerican Court on Human Rights. Chávez has threatened to leave the OAS if the court rules against him.
Panama has tried to keep the meeting focused on the central theme of energy cooperation, and countries initially went into the meeting displaying an unusual level of cohesion, having preapproved most resolutions, including those on biofuel collaboration and anti-personnel mine removal.
Several days before the Panama meeting, countries dispatched a potentially contentious resolution urging the United States to extradite anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles, accused of planning terrorist acts throughout the region.
The OAS is expected to approve a resolution in favor of media freedom in Panama, which says the right of expression ''may not be restricted'' by controls over newsprint or radio broadcast frequencies. Venezuela signed on to the draft but observers say the OAS has no mechanism to enforce its resolutions.
Eduardo Bertoni, a former special OAS envoy on freedom-of-expression issues, says countries have a ''moral duty'' to denounce the violation of fundamental human rights like freedom of expression but doubts they will activate any instruments to punish Venezuela, as countries tend to respect each other's sovereignty.
''I am pessimistic,'' he said, adding that there have been many resolutions that have never been complied with.
The OAS' Inter-American Democratic Charter, which is supposed to safeguard democratic institutions, has never been invoked in its six-year existence, even though there was a coup attempt against Chávez in 2002, several presidents have been deposed by angry protesters and supreme court justices fired.