July, 26, 2007
Venezuela's decision to veto Transparency International's participation in the OAS sparked angry reactions and fears of a dangerous precedent.
The report by an international anticorruption group, buried in an obscure part of the Organization of American States' website, concluded that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had done little to eliminate graft.
Off-budget spending was soaring, too many government jobs were handed out without public postings and there were too many no-bid government contracts, according to Transparency International.
But Venezuela's harsh reaction to the report, activists say, underscores just how far the Chávez government will go to silence critical voices and how weak the 34-member hemispheric body can be at times.
Venezuelan officials demanded that the OAS yank the report from the website. They objected to the report's author, Berlin-based Transparency International, briefing an OAS panel. The OAS complied, in twin decisions that became public only late last month, when the group went public with its complaint.
''Venezuela wants to make sure that the voices heard in international bodies are not critical ones,'' said Eduardo Bertoni, a former special OAS envoy on freedom of expression issues.
OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza says Venezuela is the only country that, at least in public, attempts to block nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, such as Transparency International when their messages are critical.
He's unhappy with OAS rules that allow countries to veto NGOs they don't like, and is lobbying governments to change them. He says excluding Transparency International was wrong.
''I have said many times I don't like it,'' he told The Miami Herald. ``NGOs shouldn't ask anyone for permission to be an NGO.''
Venezuela also tried to stop Súmate -- a group that promotes voter rights and has been accused by Caracas officials of supporting a coup against Chávez -- from taking part in an OAS meeting in Panama last month. The effort failed after Canada and the United States objected.
The Venezuelan mission to the OAS did not respond to Miami Herald phone and e-mail requests for comment on the issue, but officials often argue they are defending Chávez's socialist revolution against U.S. aggressions, and that there's nothing wrong with nations attempting to influence international bodies like the OAS.
Even so, OAS insiders say Venezuela is more aggressive than most when it comes to defending its interests.
Chávez has refused to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a part of the OAS, to send a mission to Caracas to study allegations of abuses. He also has threatened to leave the OAS if it criticizes his decision to lift the broadcast license of a TV station linked to the opposition.
''For many years, Venezuela has been aggressively playing the spoiler role,'' said Peter Quilter, a former OAS advisor who now works in the U.S. Congress. ``They've been very successful at it.''
Bertoni said media and NGOs like Transparency International are the first line of defense against official corruption, so their voices must be heard.
The Transparency International report on Venezuela was part of a routine follow-up to the 1996 Inter-American Convention against Corruption. Countries are periodically evaluated by a committee of experts designated by OAS member nations. The country under evaluation and local NGOs can submit reports -- Transparency International often does -- and the experts then issue a set of recommendations.
Using official data, Transparency International's Caracas branch reported that the Venezuelan government had fully complied with just one of the 60 recommendations from its 2004 evaluation. Other recommendations were ignored or partly implemented, said Mercedes de Freitas, Transparency International's representative in Venezuela.
In a Dec. 22 letter, the Venezuelan government told the OAS experts' panel that its laws did not consider Transparency International to be a local NGO because it receives money from abroad. Since OAS rules say the laws of individual countries determine which NGOs can participate, the Transparency International report was taken off the Web on Jan. 8.
De Freitas traveled to Washington in late June, hoping to at least brief the experts panel on the report's contents. But she was barred from speaking.
De Freitas said the OAS showed ''weakness'' and that the decision was ''against the principles of a free society and of the OAS.'' Dozens of watchdog groups signed a letter supporting Transparency International.