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.

When in Caracas, don’t act like those in charge

Yesterday I attended an event at the Inter-American Dialogue entitled “What’s in Store for Venezuela?” that happened to coincide rather closely with the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) in Venezuela throwing out Henrique Carpiles’ lawsuits alleging fraud in the April 14th elections and then fining him for having the temerity file them in the first place. That the court threw out the lawsuits is hardly surprising, though the ferocity with which they did so perhaps is. I highlight this because both speakers, Javier Corrales of Amherst University and Dan Restrepo of the Center for American Progress, felt it was a positive sign that the opposition in Venezuela has not abandoned democratic politics, while fretting that other governments in the region were not committed to supporting democratic politics in the region. Meanwhile, Francisco Toro argues that the TSJ ruling marks the effective end to democratic politics under chavismo and that the future of the opposition depends on its ability to function in a non-democratic world. I actually agree with all three of them. The abject failure of the Inter-American system to stand up to the democratic erosion in Venezuela over the last decade and a half has left Venezuela’s democratic opposition totally isolated and empowered chavismo to become ever more openly autocratic.

As in any situation like this, the eventual solution will have to be domestic; no one can impose its will on Venezuela to force it to become more democratic. That said, Latin American governments have largely either tacitly approved of Venezuela’s democratic backsliding or actively encouraged or rewarded it. For example, Venezuela has been accepted into Mercosur thanks to Paraguay’s suspension as a result of impeaching its president in a hasty, but legal process. All of this happened during the middle of a presidential campaign in which the opposition was practically barred from the airwaves while Hugo Chávez abused his power to invoke cadenas to take over the airwaves for hours at a time to campaign. More tacit approval can be seen in the non-reaction of Latin American governments this January when the TSJ ruled that the legally mandated presidential inauguration could be postponed while Chávez was in Cuba receiving treatment for the cancer that eventually killed him. Similarly, when Chávez died and Nicolás Maduro inherited the presidency before the April 14th special elections, despite a clear constitutional mandate (article 233) that the temporary presidency pass to the head of the National Assembly, governments around the region said nothing. And these are just a few examples from the past year I could mention, notwithstanding the dozens of other instances.

Any criticism of how the Inter-American community has reacted to the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy must be tempered by acknowledging that the existing democracy promotion framework is overwhelmingly biased toward incumbent executives. Part of this is due to the fact that the impetus for developing the framework was the return to democracy of most of Latin America in the 1980s following two decades of near constant military intervention in countries across the region, mainly in the form of coups. Moreover, both within the Organization of American States (OAS) and in nearly every other regional grouping with a democratic mandate, it was executives who designed the mechanisms designed to protect democracy, and unsurprisingly, they designed mechanism that help protect incumbent executives much more than democratic systems of government as a whole. This means, for instance, that only the executive has authority to summon the OAS in the event of a constitutional breakdown. Hardly much of a safeguard against an over wielding executive.

It is therefore hardly surprising that leaders from around the region have been reluctant to embrace Venezuelan opposition forces, both National Assembly members and Capriles. Many presidents, both from the right, and more commonly in recent times, from the left, have looked to amass as much power as possible, often blurring the lines between the different branches of power in a way similar to what chavismo has done in Venezuela. The current status quo suits all current presidents quite nicely whereas embracing the Venezuelan opposition’s cause necessarily means upsetting that system and, potentially, exposing oneself to the risk that democracy promotion will mean protecting separation of powers and rule of law rather than incumbent presidents. Combined with the fact that a number of presidents in the region openly sympathize with the chavista government, or have significant constituencies within their governing (or, in Michelle Bachelet’s case, her campaign coalition) who do and the lack of response makes sense.

This leaves the opposition in Venezuela in a terrible place. On the one hand, they face a government that controls all the levers of power and is increasingly less restrained—either by arrogance, or more likely desperation—by any need to conceal its authoritarian tendencies, and therefore impervious to legal challenges. On the other hand, it receives minimal support from the region’s other governments, despite their professed commitment to democracy, leaving it with no means of legally coercing a change out of the chavista government via outside pressure. However, elevating a leadership more comfortable operating outside a democratic, legal framework, as Toro seems to suggest, risks winning the battle against chavismo at the expense of losing the war to save Venezuelan democracy. Those types of leaders might be effective at bringing down the chavista state, but are also the types of leaders disposed to becoming authoritarian once in power.

During the Q&A at the event yesterday, Javier Corrales was accused of being too optimistic by one of the attendees. I will confess, despite everything I have just written, I remain optimistic that the strategy Toro seems to have become resigned to will not be necessary. I am deeply pessimistic about the state of the Venezuelan economy, and bullish on the idea that oil prices are likely to stagnate over the next few years, which will, as Corrales mentioned, force the chavista government, which has heretofore relied on ever rising prices, to deal for the first time with the politics of economic adjustment. I do not believe that Maduro possesses the political talent to navigate that type of challenge, nor do I believe that Venezuela has the institutional capacity to do so. In short, despite lacking a legal avenue to challenge chavismo, the opposition may still be best suited to maintaining its current strategy because the chavista state is so fragile that it’s likely to collapse on itself in the face of any serious economic challenge. It’s a cynical type of optimism, but surely better than the alternative.


The recent rapprochement between Mercosur (Southern Common Market) and suspended member state Paraguay appear to have hit a roadblock that will delay Paraguay’s reentry into the organization until next year at the earliest. Following the controversial impeachment of former president Fernando Lugo, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay suspended Paraguay from the organization for violating its democratic charter. The move allowed Venezuela to finally become a full member as Paraguay’s senate could no longer block its admittance into the group. Now, Paraguay is refusing to rejoin the group so long as Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro holds the rotating presidency, arguing that since Paraguay hasn’t yet approved Venezuela’s membership, it could not hold the presidency. This latest spat helps to highlight the unfortunate missed potential of Mercosur, an economic bloc with so much potential that often behaves in direct opposition to its founding, and very ambitious goals.

Mercosur was established in 1991 with the intention of eventually evolving into a common market akin to the European Common Market that eventually became the European Union. In the 1990s, trade within the group grew quickly and it looked like Mercosur could soon become an important economic block. However, since then, Mercosur is defined more by its failure to reach its potential than by its achievements. While the customs union was successfully established, little significant progress has been made toward a deeper economic integration, let alone a full-fledged common market. Trade between the member countries has grown dramatically among the four original members—averaging more than 4 percent annual growth since 1994 by UN COMTRADE statistics. However, that also took place during a period where Latin America’s trade in general was growing rapidly as a result of neoliberal reforms and was starting from an exceptionally low point after decades of Import Substitution Industrialization had closed off their economies.

Most damagingly, the member states have been all too willing to renege on their Mercosur commitments when it benefits when it will provide short-term economic or political boosts at home. For instance, the Kirchner governments in Argentina allowed environmentalist groups opposed to two pulp mills in Uruguay to blockade one of the crossings between the two countries off and on for years until Argentina finally lost its case in the International Court of Justice in 2010. In a similar vein, following Brazil’s devaluation in 1999, Argentina placed a tariff on Brazilian steel to forestall the deleterious effects of a suddenly more competitive Brazilian car industry on Argentine markets. More broadly, Paraguay and Uruguay have often complained of asymmetrical access to the larger Brazilian and Argentine markets, particularly as both have reverted to increasingly protectionist policies over the past few years and retreated into bilateral economic agreements that exclude their smaller neighbors.

Venezuela’s adhesion to the group was, in many ways, the culmination of Mercosur’s failure. Most conspicuously, Venezuela, first under Hugo Chávez, and now under Nicolás Maduro, has been Latin America’s leading voice in opposition to free trade. For an organization that purported to be working toward a common market (i.e. completely free trade within the member states), allowing the country that had spent a decade working to undermine free trade seemed incongruous at best. This played no small part in Paraguay’s resistance to ratifying Venezuela’s membership. How could a group attempting to increase free trade admit a member so diametrically opposed to the concept?

Moreover, that Fernando Lugo’s impeachment was sufficient to warrant a suspension from Mercosur for violating its democratic principles, but that Venezuela was allowed entrance in spite of its complete degradation of rule of law showed how hollow its commitment to democracy really is. The Ushuaia Protocol establishes Mercosur’s commitment to democracy and procedures for dealing with a “rupture in the democratic order.” As Javier El-Hage argued at the time, it is difficult to argue what happened to Lugo was a disruption in the democratic order considering the margins by which both houses voted to impeach him and the fact that it was conducted within the letter of Paraguayan law—if not its spirit. However, suspending Paraguay allowed Mercosur to backdoor Venezuela’s ascension into the organization; a cruel irony considering the Venezuelan government’s systematic disregard for its own constitution.

With Argentina continuing to close its economy in response to economic troubles, Venezuela still being run by chavistas and Brazil’s slowing growth and ambivalence toward the economic wellbeing of its co-members, it’s difficult to foresee a medium-term scenario where Mercosur returns to its roots and works to increase economic openness among its member states.

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.