Latin America Forum Sees a Showdown on Trump’s Venezuela Policy

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(Bloomberg) -- The election for the head of a Latin America democracy watchdog has effectively turned into a test of the popularity of Donald Trump’s hard-line policy against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The Organization of American States, based in Washington, is scheduled to choose its secretary general in a session at 11 a.m. on Friday. Luis Almagro, the U.S.-backed incumbent who has repeatedly called Maduro a dictator, is seeking another five-year term. His opponent, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, a former Ecuadorean foreign minister, counts countries seeking a less confrontational approach to the Venezuelan regime such as Mexico and Argentina as her top backers.

The Trump administration and allies including Colombia have called for Maduro’s removal and for new elections after he won a 2018 vote that opponents and many international observers consider fraught with irregularities. Mexico and Argentina say that ousting him would be interfering with another nation’s sovereignty.

Peru’s Hugo de Zela, a third candidate who had promoted OAS dialog to resolve the situation in Venezuela, withdrew from the race this week. That probably boosts Almagro’s chances, said Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank. The 34 member countries will hold a secret ballot, each with one vote, and the winner needs a simple majority.

“Almagro’s attention to Venezuela reflects the gravity of the crisis, including democratic collapse, a humanitarian nightmare and a refugee emergency,” Gedan said. “But his approach has alienated many governments. Almagro has been unusually outspoken for a secretary general, and willing to promote action absent regional consensus, contrary to OAS tradition.”

Election Monitoring

The oldest regional forum, OAS in recent years has taken on a key role in election monitoring in Latin America, making it a lightning rod for criticism, particularly by leftist governments who see Almagro promoting a conservative agenda in the organization.

In November, the OAS denounced irregularities in the re-election of Evo Morales in Bolivia. The vote was followed by street protests, a police mutiny and an eventual army intervention that forced Morales out. Governments friendly to Morales, including Mexico, called it a coup, while Morales opponents said the army was stepping in to restore legal order.

The coronavirus outbreak has complicated the logistics of Friday’s vote. The organization announced on Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would inspect its headquarters in advance of the meeting as a health safeguard. Almagro himself underwent a test last week that came back negative after he had contact with someone who was infected.

Caribbean nations and Mexico have called for delaying the vote, citing the dangers of gathering amid the outbreak.

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