Venezuela, the OAS and the planned obsolescence of democracy promotion

As the democratic situation in Venezuela has deteriorated over the past decade and a half, the Organization of American States (OAS), as the premier multilateral organization in the region, has been harshly criticized by many for not doing more to combat chavismo’s assault on the country’s institutions. No doubt, the OAS has failed to play much of a role since the stillborn mesa de diálogo following the 2002 coup that briefly removed Hugo Chávez from power. Critics question why the OAS hasn’t invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter in response to the clear democratic breakdown that has occurred. The answer is less fecklessness or a tacit approval of chavismo by many in the OAS, rather it is a consequence of the two fundamental flaws that were built into the OAS and the Inter-American system; that the OAS is a multilateral organization that won’t infringe on its member states’ sovereignty, and that the Inter-American democratic system is accessible only by the executive branch.

Fundamentally, multilateral organizations function by member states agreeing to mutually cede a degree of sovereignty in order to facilitate action on a given topic. For various historical reasons, Latin American states are uniquely jealous of their sovereignty, and as such, the institutions that make up the OAS lack any sort of mechanisms to oblige member states to abide by the agreements reached. As long as every member state participates, this isn’t a problem, but it makes the OAS very ineffective in dealing with any situation where there isn’t unanimous agreement by its members. Member states can refuse to live up to its obligations as defined by the treaties that compromise the OAS, without experiencing any major consequences.

This combines with the executive-centric nature of all of the institutions in the Inter-American system save for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Partially as a legacy of the traditional executive-led nature of diplomacy, and partially by design, the OAS permanent council and the Inter-American Democratic Charter are all the exclusive domain of the executive. That means, for example, that the Venezuelan congress has no authority petition for a meeting of the Permanent Council over undemocratic actions by Nicolás Maduro and his goverment. Originally, this didn’t matter much, since the democratic breakdowns of the 50s, 60s and 70s almost always started with the overthrow of the executive–usually by the military–before the other democratic institutions were dismantled by the de facto government. In essence, protecting the executive was effectively the same as protecting democracy.

Looking at the successes the OAS has had in dealing with democratic breakdowns, one can clearly see the way these institutions are effective at dealing with threats to democratically-elected executives. When presidents were overthrown, or there were legitimate threats to sitting presidents, the system was reasonably effective. However, when the presdient has been responsible for the breakdown in the democratic system, the OAS has been very slow to respond, if at all. For instance, Alberto Fujimori was able to launch an autogolpe in which he dissolved the congress and judiciary, yet remained a member in good standing of the OAS. It wasn’t until Fujimori was credibly accused of rigging an election that the OAS’ member states forcefully moved to address the situation.

A similar thing is occurring now in Venezuela. The executive branch, first with Chávez and now Maduro, has totally dismembered the democratic institutions, yet the OAS has done virutually nothing. Some member states have made noises expressing concern, but not enough to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter and since only the executive can petition, no one representing Venezuela has been able to force the issue. Because of the premium placed on respecting state sovereignty, the General Secretariat has no authority to punish Venezuela and, for a variety of reasons, no majority of member states exists willing to push the issue.

Alberto Lleras Camargo, the first secretary general is supposed to have remarked that the OAS would be whatever its member states wanted it to be. While each milestone that accompanied the development of the Inter-American democratic system since 1989 featured lofty talk of protecting and nurturing democratic ideals, there was never any impetus to do more than protect sitting presidents while protecting state sovereignty. Chavismo’s descent into outright authoritarianism, in that sense, is not a failure of those entrusted with protect Latin America’s democracy. Instead it is the embodiment of the type of democratic breakdown that the Inter-American was explicitly designed not to prevent. Lleras Camargo had a point, unfortunately.

The mask slips off

Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela turned out to be quite surprising. Despite Nicolás Maduro’s tremendous monetary, communication and mobilization advantages over Henrique Capriles, he was only able to achieve a modest victory. This even despite the type of high turnout levels I, and others, thought would doom Capriles. Even more surprising, Maduro initially indicated he would allow a full recount of the results. Unfortunately, that proved fleeting and by Monday afternoon, Maduro was rejecting any need for a recount and explicitly called those demanding a recount golpistas (coup plotters). Moreover, as protests have sprung up across the country, and with a large march planned in Caracas tomorrow, Maduro has taken an even stronger tone, saying he would use a mano dura (hard hand) to stop the protest.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s foreign minister enthusiastically congratulated Maduro on his victory and pointed to it as a triumph of democracy that will further aid in regional integration. Cristina Kirchner also has announced plans to attend the inauguration and Unasur appears to be backing Maduro as well.

A Venezuelan friend on Twitter today commented that Venezuela now is like Peru in 2000 when Alberto Fujimori attempted to extend himself in power through electoral fraud and failed. I wish I could say I agreed, but the situation is quite different this time. For one, Fujimori’s candidacy was clearly illegal except through the most partisan reading of the constitution, whereas Maduro’s is wholly legal (even if his role as interim president was not). Second, the irregularities in Peru were far more obvious than those in Venezuela. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is no regional body that appears willing or capable of even the half-hearted mesa de diálogo that the OAS set up in 2000. I wrote several months ago about the weakness of the OAS in all but the most egregious of constitutional violations and I don’t see how, with at least five member states certain to support Maduro (Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil and Argentina) as well as several others who likely will, that anything will happen.

The next few days will be exceedingly important. Seven people have died already in protests (with at least one being chavista) and with the government appearing to threaten violence against future protests, it could get much worse. Perhaps Maduro will agree to a recount that will establish with certainty that he won. More ominously, this may prove the moment when the mask fell off completely and Venezuela lost all pretense of being a democracy at all.