Defending Democracy in the Americas

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The Secretary General of the Organization of the American States (OAS), Luis Almagro

Book review: 

Beyond Sovereignty. Collectively Defending Democracy in the Americas. By Tom Farer (ed.) Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. 456 pages, $28.00 (paperback, amazon.com

Promoting Democracy in the Americas. By Thomas Legler, Sharon F. Lean and Dexter S. Boniface (eds.) Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 360 pages, $30.00 (paperback, amazon.com)

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Commodity busts have traditionally produced political change and instability in Latin America, so it is not surprising that while the recent boom led to unprecedented (though unsustainable) prosperity in the region since the turn of the century, the bust would lead to discontent with democracy across the continent. While voters were able to express their anger at incumbents within the institutional framework in Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, citizens in Venezuela are facing a government unwilling to accept new realities. The result is one of the worst constitutional crises in years, which is set to keep regional leaders busy for years, tainting Latin America's image in the world. 

The ongoing crisis of democracy in Venezuela is far from unique — rather, it must be understood as a still frequent phenomenon that has plagued the region since full-scale democratization in the late 1980s (with some laggards, such as Peru, becoming democratic just in the year 2000, and Cuba still being autocratic). Over the past three decades, Latin America has seen as series of democratic ruptures or quasi-ruptures; among others in Suriname in 1990, in Haiti in 1991, in Venezuela and Peru in 1992, in Ecuador in 1995, 1997, 2005 and 2010, in Paraguay in 1996, 1999 and 2012, in Peru in 2000, in Venezuela in 2002, in Bolivia in 2006, in Honduras in 2009 and in Guatemala in 2015. 

What role do transnational actors play in seeking to preserve democratic governance across the continent? Two edited volumes — Beyond Sovereignty, written twenty years ago, and Promoting Democracy in the Americas, written ten years ago, partly by the same authors — provide some fascinating insight about how this debate has evolved since the 1990s. 

The first volume, published the year after Fernando Henrique Cardoso became President in Brazil, reflects a sense of ambiguity regarding democratic rule in the Americas at the time. In 1996, with the exception of Cuba, Mexico and Haiti (and Peru, to some degree), all countries in the hemisphere were democratic; and yet, Larry Diamond argues that half of them failed to provide their citizens with the liberties usually associated to democratic order. His analysis of the situation in Venezuela — two years before Hugo Chávez was to be elected — is prescient and worrisome considering that several democracies in Latin America face similar problems today, for example the growing rejection of formerly dominant centrist parties (like, in Brazil's case, PT and PSDB). Discussing the reasons for weak democratic governance in the region, Diamond continuously points to the quality of political parties, which continues to be a concern two decades later. He argues that unless Latin America's political systems are able to field strong, disciplined and purposeful political parties, democracy will always be vulnerable. Other authors in the volume express skepticism regarding democracy's capacity to consolidate in the region as well.

From today's perspective, the authors' faith on the impact of technology on democracy and human rights is somewhat exaggerated. Diamond, for example, says that from the increase of "fax and mail communications" will "eventually emerge a community no less bound than the European Union by a common commitment to human rights and democracy." And yet, while such a community has hardly come into existence, technology has helped journalists and NGOs connect the region and be more attentive to human rights violations than ever before.

The questions that Forsythe raises in his analysis of the OAS are strikingly similar to those that are asked today:

Can the OAS legitimately use or threaten the use of coercive measures against a de facto government that has come to power by overthrowing an elected government? Do OAS member states have the political will to resort to such measures? What other instruments besides coercion could be used for the promotion and protection of democracy? (p.133)

The tension between respecting sovereignty and promoting human rights is, of course, far older, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Americas. As early as 1945, Uruguay's Foreign Minister Rodriguez Larreta pointed out that "nonintervention cannot be converted into a right to invoke one principle in order to be able to violate all other principles with impunity." (p.134). During the following decades, many declarations signed at the OAS unequivocally showed that collective action against illegitimate governments did not constitute a violation of the principle of nonintervention.

And yet, that the rules existed did not mean that states applied them: The failure to apply the Rio Treaty, signed in 1948, to protect democratically elected governments would suggest that the upmost concern of the OAS member states was, for most of its history, to protect state sovereignty against external threats rather than to defend democracy.

The contributors of Beyond Sovereignty are strongly influenced by crises in three countries: 1991 in Haiti, when mere diplomatic means failed to influence the generals, 1992, when Fujimori shut down Congress, and 1993, when outside and inside pressure helped overturn a self-coup by Serrano in Guatemala. As Acevedo and Grossmann write, the three cases

prove that the role of the OAS has been insufficient. It seems that national democratic elites have not yet fully understood to what extent their future is linked to the protection and promotion of democracy in other countries. (p.149)

All in all, the book provides a series of excellent analyses of the role of international and transnational actors in democratization processes in the Americas in the early 1990s, underlining that the fundamental dilemmas have not changed much.

By comparison, Defending Democracy, written a decade later (in 2007), strikes an utterly somber note, arguing that the quality of democracy has not improved substantially. "Democracy is alive, but not well" (p.46), Dexter Boniface writes, arguing that most citizens still did not enjoy the benefits of liberal democracy (according to the Freedom House evaluation, most Latin American countries in 2007 were "partially illiberal democracies" or "near democracies"). Furthermore, challenges to democracy have become more complex. While the classic coup against the incumbent was the prime threat in the 1990s, Latin America now faced 

"civil society coups" or "impeachment coups". These mass outpourings of popular dissatisfaction with the performance of democratic institutions have helped topple elected leaders in Argentina (2001), Bolivia (2003, 2005), Ecuador (2000, 2005), and Venezuela (2002). (p.7)

Other phenomena faced are antidemocratic presidential-legislative conflicts and authoritarian backsliding, making the establishment of rules and norms to preserve democratic governance far more complex. Just like Beyond Sovereignty, Defending Democracy in the Americas is dominated by the debate about whether political change is a purely domestic or, at least partly, a transnational phenomenon. On one side, the authors Hawkins and Shaw, Major, Santa-Cruz, Lean, Shamsie, and McCoy demonstrate clear elements of the transnationalization of political change in the Americas. On the opposite side, Shaw, Burges and Daudelin, and Levitt assert the continued primacy of the domestic determinants of democratization and the self-interests of states, despite the semblance of transnational activity. Between the two extremes, authors such as Boniface, Legler, and Goldberg acknowledge both the transnational character of democratization as well as the limits of promoting democracy from outside.

The assessment of the OAS's capacity to defend democracy will always be naturally ambiguous. In the chapter The OAS's mixed record, Boniface writes

Pessimistically, we might conclude that the OAS is a relatively weak organization doing an imperfect and inconsistent job of promoting a rather limited notion of representative democracy. For all its weaknesses, however, the OAS has made a positive contribution to democracy promotion efforts in the Americas, particularly in its (generally) unified condemnation of coups, autogolpes, and egregious election failures. (p.58)

Defending Democracy in the Americas provides detailed case studies of actors such as the United States, Canada and Brazil as potential democracy promoters, pointing out how their views and interests differ when democracy is at risk. Analyzing Brasília's stance vis-à-vis democracy promotion, Burges and Daudelin argue that the foreign policy of South America's largest country can only be understood through a realist prism, considering that it intervened actively during some crises but was entirely passive during others. Even though it was written in 2007, the chapter is a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of Brazil's stance on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

The final section of the book contains three very instructive case studies of countries often affected by constitutional instability, namely Haiti, Ecuador and Peru. While Peru is generally seen as a successful case of how outside pressure eventually helped reduce Fujimori's excesses, Haiti and Ecuador (at the time of writing) seemed like rather hopeless cases condemned to perpetual instability. Since then, Ecuador and Haiti have developed in rather different fashions. While Ecuador stabilized (though challenges remain), Haiti continues in its century-long trajectory of instability. Even though Brazil played a key role in the Hemisphere's poorest country over the past decade, uncertainty remains as high as ever, as the last presidential election was so fraught with problems that it will be rerun in October. Despite tremendous progress since the democratization of most part of the region 25 years ago, the ongoing troubles in Haiti and Venezuela are a reminder that several challenges remain. If a third volume were written today, it would include detailed analyses of Mercosur and UNASUR, which receive far less attention than the OAS in the first two books. The big questions, of course, would be: With the left-wing governments that embraced Unasur gone, will the new organization play a crucial role in the coming years? Can the OAS recover after having been sidelined during the ongoing crises? And, how do two key events — the end of the civil war in Colombia and the rapprochement between Cuba and Washington — affect the region's capacity to work together?

Read also:

Book review: “21st Century Democracy Promotion in the Americas” By J. Heine and B. Weiffen

Brazil: South America’s Ambivalent Crisis Manager

How Latin America Should Address the Crisis in Venezuela (Americas Quarterly)

How Brazil’s Crisis Is Bleeding into the Rest of South America (Americas Quarterly)