How Protected is Latin American Democracy?

With the potential for another presidential election looking likely in the near future in Venezuela, looming elections in Ecuador, a recently completed election in Mexico and the contested impeachment of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay earlier in the year, the potential for a contested result and fraud or some other constitutional irregularity is always a possibility. The question for many is: what could be done if something along those lines were to happen?

In theory, the Organization of American States (OAS) has a mechanism for dealing with extra-constitutional events in member states through the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Article 20 authorizes any member state to request the convocation of the Permanent Council “in the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.” The Permanent Council, if unable to resolve the situation diplomatically can then suspend the member state according to Article 21.

In practice, this really only can work in the event of a coup, and even then only with limited success and requiring a lot of coordination outside of the OAS regarding sanctions and other mechanisms. Even then deposed presidents have not even been considered by the OAS (Bucaram in Ecuador), were returned to power before the Permanent Council could convene (Chávez in Venezuela) or were never returned to power despite the state being suspended due to a determined de facto leadership (Zelaya in Honduras).

Moreover, this process is really only effective in dealing with unconstitutional removals of sitting presidents and is virtually powerless to deal with constitutional overreach by the presidents themselves. This is largely because the OAS is an executive-centric organization. The legislative and judicial branches have little recourse to petition before the General Assembly or Permanent Council, much less individual citizens or opposition groups within member states. In this way, situations of erosions of the constitutional authority by the executive are only indirectly by the OAS. Good examples of this can be seen in Venezuela, where the constitution that Hugo Chávez’s supporters and ratified in 1999 is routinely violated by the president in ways both subtle and overt. Similarly, it was widely believed that municipal elections in Nicaragua in 2009 were rigged in favor of the Sandinistas, but little was done and Daniel Ortega comfortably won reelection early this year.

In these cases, and others, the executive responsible is the only one from his or her country with the ability to bring these abuses before the OAS. Even if another member state attempts to bring these issues to the forefront, the climate of the OAS has become so polarized that it is nearly impossible to get the kind of mobilization necessary to initiate diplomatic attempts at restoring constitutional boundaries, let alone mustering the two thirds majority necessary for any member state to be suspended.

Since the end of the Cold War, other regional organizations have begun making democracy an important factor in determining membership, including Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur) and the newly formed Unasur (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas). In theory, these groups might be able to twist arms better than the OAS either because of the economic benefits that come with being a member (Mercosur) or due to the lack of stigma associated with US domination (Unasur). Unfortunately, the recent impeachment of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in a hasty process that, while within the letter of the law was certainly not done within its spirit, bodes poorly for the effectiveness of these organizations. Despite being suspended from Mercosur and diplomatic efforts followed by suspension from Unasur, the decision was upheld domestically and Lugo remains out of power. Moreover, the suspension of Paraguay removed the lone obstacle to Venezuelan ascension into Mercosur. Notwithstanding the fact that Venezuela is actively in opposition to the stated economic goals of Merocsur, it further indicated that respect for democracy refers only to having elections and an elected, if not democratically governing executive.

The unfortunate reality in Latin America these days is that there is little in the way of regional institutions that can protect and strengthen democracy. There is no framework that can address threats to democracy from over-powerful executives and, even in clear situations such as coups like in Honduras, there is little that the OAS or any other regional organization can do if the new government is committed enough. Compared to the past, Latin America has never been more democratic, but the preservation and strengthening of those democracies against real domestic threats will have to be done by the citizens of those countries except in the most grievous instances.

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One thought on “How Protected is Latin American Democracy?

  1. Pingback: The mask slips off | ¿Venceremos?

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