The past weekend was all about “the handshake.” President Trump’s unorthodox, reality TV diplomacy once again dominated world headlines as it should have.
Say what you will about the visual dissonance of an American President buddying up to a cruel dictator who has ruthlessly killed a score of close family and friends and starved his nation, we have to remember that Roosevelt and Churchill mugged for the cameras with Joseph Stalin in the service of peace.
While it remains to be seen if Trump’s relentless personal courtship of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un results in a denuclearized North Korea and the reintegration of that pariah nation into the community of nations, complete with a condo building boom, those of us who criticize the Administration’s ad hoc and personalized diplomacy must, nonetheless, hope for success. To do otherwise would be unpatriotic, despite our skepticism.
At the same time, on a much smaller stage half a world away, in Medellin, Colombia, last week witnessed two developments of hemispheric significance at the 49 th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). For readers not familiar with this gathering of the Western Hemisphere’s foreign ministers, it is basically the region’s annual political bazaar.
Think of the end-of-year school fair, complete with all the teams and clubs and a bake sale, held just before everyone goes on summer vacation. It’s not a decision-making venue, but it is a democratic, one-country-one-vote space where the nation states of our hemisphere talk, present, opine, …and yes, fight rhetorically with one another.
Big yawn, you might think. However, in a region mercifully bereft of state-on-state military conflict, ethnic genocide, nuclear confrontation, and with minimal exposure to terrorism and violent extremism compared to other regions, the issues of poverty and income inequality, irregular migration, education, democracy and human rights should be the order of the day. And so, they are, even when the world’s attention was focused on higher stakes diplomatic theatrics elsewhere.
First, it bears mentioning that the event occurred in Medellin, Colombia. When the turf that spawned countless books and Netflix series about Pablo Escobar and the Medellin drug cartel becomes the hemisphere’s showcase city, with its eternal spring temperatures and broad cultural offerings, the venue alone demonstrated what can be accomplished by sustained peacemaking. By just flying in and participating in the meetings, the hemisphere recognized and saluted the Colombian people’s efforts. No one stayed away because Medellin was too dangerous.
Secondly, just who sat at the table was of significance. Stung by repeated international criticism, the Maduro regime in Venezuela pulled out of the OAS in April 2017, after not paying dues for almost a decade. Its 21 stcentury socialist supporters, most notably Bolivia, Nicaragua and a few Caribbean states, remain to carry on an anti-neo-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-US agenda. Cuba’s membership was suspended in 1962 for its virulently anti-democratic government. Invited to return in 2009, Cuba continues to choose to remain outside the democratic fold that is the nominal price of admission to the organization.
So with a Venezuelan flag still at the table, who sat behind it became an issue of intense focus. Via skillful parliamentary handling of the issue, host foreign minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, gaveled in representatives of interim constitutional president Juan Guaido as the legitimate representatives of the Venezuelan people.
Uruguay, for reasons that beg credulity, found this intolerable and stormed out of the session, a diplo-tantrum of little to no consequence. While no one found food or medicine more readily in Caracas that afternoon as a result of the Guaido government being formally credentialed at the OAS, the symbolic importance of the development should not be underestimated.
No one can predict the final denouement of that nation’s humanitarian suffering under the dictator Maduro, but Guaido and his brave patriotic cohort remain steadfastly in the game. This is to be applauded.
In another unnoticed development on the world’s stage, the OAS offered a resounding vote of support to the long-suffering people of Nicaragua by approving a resolution that condemned the regime of Daniel Ortega. Cutting through the ornate language of diplomacy, the nations of the hemisphere, including Venezuela this time, insisted that Ortega’s government stop abusing its citizens human rights, allow for a free press, hold transparent national elections, permit the return of the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights to the country, and begin negotiating in good faith with the multisectoral opposition to resolve Nicaragua’s political crisis.
While Latin strongmen have long sarcastically said they were trembling in their boots over OAS statements, Ortega’s response was muted. He sees how Maduro is isolated and must kill, torture and repress to sustain power. Ortega has done that, too, and for now he remains Nicaragua’s de facto power. But when the hemisphere so resoundingly supports his opposition, Ortega has to be plagued by the question of how long he can hold on, especially with his sugar daddy Venezuela bankrupt and selling gold and anything else it can to survive?
A final vignette from Medellin captured the eternal hope that freedom, and by extension a free press, can provide to those suffering under tyranny. Nicaraguan journalist Lucia Pineda spent six months in jail on trumped up terrorism charges. As a result of international pressure, the 100% News reporter was released from prison, just a week or so before the Medellin gathering. Arriving on her own, as her news outlet has been shuttered by the Ortega regime, she went to the press registration desk to ask for a credential to cover the assembly.
When asked what media organization was sponsoring her, she replied, “I haven’t got one. I was just released from jail.” Lucia Pineda was recognized as a journalist by the OAS and covered the proceedings.
Her dignified return to the noble profession of journalism might not be a handshake seen around the world, but it is cause for hope – the only thing dictators cannot take from people without their permission. Enhorabuena @LuciaPinedaU