The Venezuelan Crisis in the Italian Parliamentary Practice of 2017

Popular protests have been taking place in Venezuela at least since 2014: their targets are the Government’s crackdown on civil and political liberties and the grave economic crisis afflicting the country, which has inter alia resulted in skyrocketing inflation and a persistent lack of essential goods.

In December 2015, parliamentary elections were held and won by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a coalition of parties opposing President Nicolás Maduro and his United Socialist Party (PSUV). In the following months, President Maduro declared the state of emergency and assumed more powers, while the MUD started to collect signatures for a referendum to remove him from office before the natural end of his term. In October 2016, however, the National Electoral Council suspended the referendum process; new demonstrations against this decision took place.

After a year-long tug-of-war between the National Assembly (the Venezuelan Parliament) and the Supreme Court (controlled by President Maduro), on 29 March 2017, the Court stripped the Assembly of its legislative powers and assumed them. The decision was reversed shortly afterwards, but popular discontent did not diminish. Shortly before, fourteen members of the Organization of American States had urged the Venezuelan Government to release all political prisoners, recognise the legitimacy of the National Assembly and hold the local elections originally scheduled for December 2016 and postponed by the Government. The statement followed a critical report by the Secretary of the Organisation, Luis Almagro. A mediation attempt led by the Vatican had already failed in January 2017.

On 1 May 2017, President Maduro announced his intention to establish a Constituent Assembly with the mandate to draft a new Constitution. The MUD organised an informal referendum against the proposed Constituent Assembly in July 2017, but elections for the new Assembly were held nonetheless at the end of the same month. Notwithstanding the boycott of the opposition and the controversy surrounding turnout figures, the Constituent Assembly officially took office on 4 August 2017. Over the following days, it revoked the legislative powers of the National Assembly and voted to proceed against the opposition leaders for high treason.

In Italy, these developments have been followed closely. Concern was expressed for the limitations imposed on democracy, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and individual freedoms, as well as for the grave economic crisis plaguing the country. As emphasised by both the Government and the Parliament, Italy’s interest for the situation in Venezuela is reinforced by the considerable number of Italian citizens and descendants living in the country, as well as Italian companies operating there: initiatives were thus taken to ensure their security and well-being. More generally, Italian authorities expressed their hope for a political solution of the crisis and their willingness to participate in the mediation efforts of the international community, while recognising the principle of non-interference with the internal affairs of Venezuela.

As to the role of the international community, and of Italy in particular, on 24 January 2017, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Angelino Alfano, briefly illustrated before the Senate of the Republic (746th Meeting, XVII Legislature) the Italian position: 

The question arises of what role the international community can play. The Italian Government believes that the international community must in the first place strongly support a dialogue between the [Venezuelan] Government and the opposition and contribute to overcome the economic and social crisis which is a cause for great concern for the entire South American region.

He further dwelt upon the issue before the Chamber of Deputies. On 18 July 2017 (836th Meeting, XVII Legislature), Mr Alfano took the floor to report on the latest developments in Venezuela, starting from the raid on 5 July in the Venezuelan National Assembly by supporters of President Maduro, which resulted in the wounding of various members of the Assembly:

When a parliament, the place for democratic choices, is breached by violence, I believe we cannot remain indifferent, and that is why I wanted to publicly and strongly condemn this incident. […] We cannot stand idle in the face of the violations of the Venezuelan people’s right to live in peace and security and to freely choose its representatives.

Mr Alfano then outlined two ways forward for the mediation efforts: one involving Latin American States only; the other one also supported by countries outside of the region, including Italy:

We must seek as much as possible to involve regional organizations and, even more, the United Nations, by offering our readiness to participate in possible mediation initiatives for which we have the necessary professional competences and experience.

He concluded:

One thing is certain: should violence persist, we will not look away nor remain silent, and I am happy to say it in front of a Parliament that I feel as being ideally very close to the one in Caracas.

Mr Alfano, however, also clarified the limits of the Italian Government’s action, in compliance with the principle of non-interference with (or non-intervention in)[1] the domestic affairs of other States. On 24 January 2017 (Senate of the Republic, 746th Meeting, XVII Legislature), he stressed that:

It is not however our intention to interfere with the internal affairs of a government, since history will judge the merits of President Chavez and of his successor, as it is for any other government experience. Italy has always respected the sovereign choice of the Venezuelan people for their representatives and cooperated constructively with any legitimate government without entering into a political and ideological debate. I think no one can deny that the Italian Government has always maintained relationships with both the Venezuelan authorities and the opposition parties.

The principle of non-interference is considered a fundamental norm of customary international law, but its content remains controversial in light of the vague language of the relevant declarations and the uncertain practice of States. While it is generally recognized that the principle of non-interference is not limited to the prohibition of the use of force, there is no agreement on what political, economic and other measures might breach the principle. It has been argued (ICJ, Nicaragua v. USA, Merits, para. 205) that an element of coercion is required for a violation of the principle to take place, but the existence of such element is not always easy to assess in practice and depends at any rate on the concrete circumstances of each case. Measures to promote a political regime change or a State’s compliance with its human rights obligations can be particularly sensitive, and there is a fine line between lawful and unlawful interference. Despite the Minister’s reassurances, doubts can be raised about whether the Italian stance finds itself within or beyond that line.

First of all, Italy seemed to set out the requirements to be met for any mediation between the parties to take place. Recalling the efforts of the Holy See, which managed to arrange the first meeting between the Government and the opposition on 30 October 2016, in his January’s speech (Senate of the Republic, 746th Meeting, XVII Legislature) the Minister endorsed the conditions laid down by the Vatican:

Let me remind that, for the mediation to be fruitful, the Secretary of State, Monsignor Parolin, asked by means of a letter addressed to President Maduro that four crucial points be complied with: respect for the institutions (and for the Parliament’s autonomy in particular), the release of all political prisoners, the admission of humanitarian aid for the Venezuelan population, and the adoption of a definite electoral calendar.

On subsequent occasions, he reiterated Italy’s support for those four conditions. Moreover, in his July’s statement before the Chamber of Deputies (836th Meeting, XVII Legislature), he asserted that “the Government must take into account the will of the people, as expressed on Sunday,[2] to find a political solution to the crisis”, and criticized the envisaged Constituent Assembly. He stated that

One additional condition must be added to [the other four], namely the interruption of the constituent process. At the same time, both parties must act urgently to stop any violent action in the country. It is at any rate clear that in Venezuela too, as in every sovereign State, the greatest responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security lies with the Government.

Indeed, the Minister clarified:

While we respect the principles of sovereignty and self-determination, we must express our concern for the electoral system established for the Constituent Assembly: it does not appear to comply with the principles of universal suffrage and free and equal participation in the expression of individual choices, which are essential in the context of the rule of law.

With regard to the constituent process, Mr Alfano also mentioned the open letter signed by the Italian President of the Council of Ministers, Mr Paolo Gentiloni, and his Spanish counterpart, Mr Mariano Rajoy, and published on the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on 18 June 2017. In the letter, it is stated inter alia that

Italy and Spain strongly ask the Venezuelan Government to reconsider its decision to establish a Constituent Assembly. The 1999 Constitution, which must be respected in its letter and spirit by all parties – already provides for mechanisms to find a political solution for the diverse interests, in compliance with the institutions, the laws, and popular sovereignty. The decision to convene – at such a critical juncture – the Constituent Assembly divides the country instead of uniting it.

As it is apparent, the Italian Government put great emphasis on democratic procedures and the respect for the will of the people stemming therefrom. On 17 May 2017 (Senate of the Republic, 825th Meeting, XVII Legislature), Mr Alfano noted, again with reference to the Constituent Assembly, that

there is the well-founded concern that this initiative is aimed at depriving the legislative power of its prerogatives and postponing new elections indefinitely.

On that occasion, he reasserted the Italian Government’s compliance with the principle of non-interference: “in accordance with the prerogatives of a sovereign State, it is not for me to assess the constitutional legitimacy of such a decision”. Nonetheless, he gave account of his actions to tackle this issue:

I called on the Venezuelan Government to listen to the demands of the population and of its elected representatives. To use the words of the President of the Italian Republic, Mr. Sergio Mattarella: ‘we see the need, which cannot be disregarded, for respect for the popular will, respect for the separation of powers, respect for genuine democracy, all things that are seriously put into question’. Finally, I invited the Venezuelan Government not to fuel internal contrasts, which could result in further violence, and to ensure that the people are called to a universal, free, direct, and secret vote. Unfortunately, this plea of mine, which is in line with the position of the international community, has been rejected by the Venezuelan authorities, who defined my statement as ‘pernicious and inspired by interventionist goals’. The [Venezuelan] Government reiterated the concept by means of a public communication regarding my statements, including those that I gave before this House.

Criticism was also levelled at the modalities of the regional elections held in October and won by President Maduro’s party (17 governorships out of 23) in contrast with consistent poll results. On 5 December 2017 (Chamber of Deputies, 897th Meeting, XVII Legislature), the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mr Benedetto Della Vedova, spoke of “the deplorable conditions under which the regional elections of 15 October [2017] took place, which testify to the democratic regression under way”.

Therefore, on the one hand, the Italian Government exerted pressure on President Maduro to restore full democracy in Venezuela and resume the mediation with the opposition. On the other hand, the Government focused on the safety of the Italian community living in the country as well as on the protection of its interests. This two-pronged approach is reflected, in an exemplary manner, in parliamentary Motion no. 709, first signatory President Casini, which Mr Alfano endorsed on behalf of the Government in January. The motion reads as follows:

[…] Notwithstanding an increasingly serious humanitarian crisis, resulting in the lack of food, medicines and medical devices, the [Venezuelan] Government hinders the entry of humanitarian aid in the country and various international initiatives, including non-governmental ones, supporting the population;

Concern for the Venezuelan situation is shared by the international community, including the European Union, the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the G7;

The declaration of the ‘state of exception and economic emergency’ confers on the Government extraordinarily extensive powers in all fields, thereby unacceptably limiting constitutional guarantees and civil and political rights;

The separation of powers, which is essential to the rule of law, is severely limited, in light of the strong control exercised by the Government over the judiciary, the National Electoral Council and the Supreme Tribunal especially;

The constitutional prerogatives of the National Assembly, where the democratic opposition holds the majority, are systematically infringed upon by decisions from both the Government and the Supreme Tribunal that prevent the exercise of the Assembly’s legislative and monitoring functions and have laid the basis for the adoption by the Assembly of measures that further exacerbate the current institutional fracture. […]

[The Senate] commits the Government:

1) to urgently adopt any useful initiative, also at the European Union level and in collaboration with international organizations, to obtain the cooperation of the Venezuelan Government to overcome the country’s critical situation; to commit the Venezuelan Government to restore the separation of powers and protect the attributions of the various constitutional bodies; to promote an effective and close dialogue between the different governmental levels, the democratic opposition and civil society; to obtain the release of all political prisoners;

2) to urgently adopt any useful initiative, also at the European Union level and in collaboration with international organizations, to alleviate the grave humanitarian crisis in the country, particularly in support of the most vulnerable members of society;

3) to prepare an extraordinary plan to assist our fellow citizens residing in Venezuela, including by strengthening our diplomatic and consular offices;

4) to continue to support the legitimate interests of the Italian companies that operate in the country and have claims against the Government”.

As put by Mr Alfano on the same occasion:

We must, as a country, take on the responsibility not to abandon [the 160.000 Italian citizens living in Venezuela]. These are Italians who are appealing to their country of origin and we have a duty to help them, while respecting the principles of sovereignty and non-interference.

In a context of heated protests and violent repression, the security of Italian citizens and descendants residing in the country was a primary concern for the Italian Government. During his January’s speech (Senate of the Republic, 746th Meeting, XVII Legislature), Mr Alfano welcomed a parliamentary initiative for the recruitment of additional personnel in Venezuela and the reinforcement of the diplomatic offices’ security. The Minister also made reference to the unresolved death of an Italian consular official in Caracas, Mr Mauro Monciatti, and stated the strong commitment of the Italian Government to clarify the circumstances of the incident. In December, Undersecretary Della Vedova detailed further security measures adopted by the Italian Government, including the upgrade of emergency satellite communication systems and the increase in the number of Carabinieri deployed at the Italian Embassy and Consulate General. As clarified by the Undersecretary, funds earmarked for international peacekeeping missions were used to implement these measures.

The Italian Government also strived to provide the Italian community with essential medicines. As reported by Mr Alfano in January:

We have been asking [local authorities] for over a year to allow us to provide for the medical needs of the Italian community by lifting the ban on the import of medicines, but our request was rejected.

Minister Delcy Rodriguez made a personal commitment to my predecessor to addressing the needs of the [Italian] community and a list of essential and urgent medicines was delivered to her, but these have never been distributed. Nor was our readiness to alleviate – through the United Nations – the lack of essential goods in the country more successful.

The repeated attempts of the Italian Government in this respect met with the persistent refusal of Venezuelan authorities to acknowledge the existence of a health emergency in the country, as admitted by Mr Della Vedova in December. Nonetheless, the Undersecretary restated the willingness of the Government to exert pressure on its Venezuelan counterpart in order for such aid to be allowed into the country. Conversely, the Italian Government’s interventions in the area of social and economic assistance yielded more substantial results: in January, Mr Alfano referred in particular to the supplement to those pensions that had been most affected by the rising inflation.

Finally, the protection of the interests and claims of Italian companies operating in Venezuela is a common thread of all Government’s statements before the Parliament. In January, in his first speech before the Senate (746th Meeting, XVII Legislature), Mr Alfano stated:

We pointed out on multiple occasions to the Venezuelan Government that the claims of almost all of our companies are growing untenably. We are well aware of the financial situation of Venezuela, but we keep asking at least for a sign of goodwill to reassure those Italian companies that believed in Venezuela and its development. Meanwhile, I asked for an assessment of the outstanding claims of our companies and citizens in Venezuela in order to identify possible means for redress among the tools provided for by the law.

The Italian Government seemed thus to exercise its diplomatic protection’s prerogatives, even though recourse to this traditional instrument was not mentioned explicitly. It remains that the two bilateral investment treaties signed between Italy and Venezuela, in 1990 and 2001 respectively, have never entered into force, while the EU-Mercosur Cooperation Agreement entrusts the promotion and protection of investment to bilateral agreements between the parties. Nonetheless, the Minister reiterated on multiple occasions the commitment of the Italian Government to raise the issue of Italian companies’ claims with the Venezuelan authorities “at the highest level” and to explore possible means of redress “with due regard to budget constraints”.

The direct interest of Italy in the solution of the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, due to the large Italian community residing there, appears further to justify the adoption of bilateral restrictive measures by the Italian Government – i.e. limitations on the export of defense equipment to Venezuela. As highlighted by Mr Della Vedova in December (Chamber of Deputies, 897th Meeting, XVII Legislature), these measures were followed by the sanctions decided by the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 13 November 2017. Council Regulation (EU) 2017/2063 and Council Decision (CFSP) 2017/2074 include an embargo on arms and related material and a legal framework for individual travel bans and assets freezes. With regard to these latter, it was only in January 2018 that seven Venezuelan officials were put on the sanctions list, as persons responsible for serious human rights violations and the repression of the opposition.

[1] The two terms are commonly used as synonyms: at times, “intervention” still refers chiefly to military action, while “interference” is considered as having a broader meaning.

[2] Reference is here made to the informal referendum organised by the opposition on 16 July 2017, where 98% of the voters rejected the creation of the Constituent Assembly.

The original Italian version of the speeches translated or quoted above can be found here below:

Parliamentary motion no. 709, Senate of the Republic, 17 and 24 January 2017

Angelino Alfano, Senate of the Republic, 24 January 2017

Angelino Alfano, Senate of the Republic, 17 May 2017

Angelino Alfano, Chamber of Deputies, 18 July 2017

Benedetto Della Vedova, Chamber of Deputies, 5 December 2017

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