Why is the collective protection of democracy in the Americas doomed to fail? The Inter-American Charter at 20

Stefano Palestini

After the end of the Cold War, the liberal international intelligentsia believed that democracy had become a global right and that international organizations must  enforce it. The American and Caribbean states adopted several policies that eventually coalesced into the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Twenty years after the adoption of the Charter, this piece assesses the trajectory of this instrument and its future challenges.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC) was speedily adopted in Lima on September 11, 2001, while the world was reacting to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The proposal had come from the government of Peru after the resignation of authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori. The IADC was endorsed by the United States and Canada, although it was resisted by some Latin American states that feared violations of the principle of non-intervention. Peru put forward the idea of reinforcing the existing multilateral instruments of the Organization of American States (OAS) in order to address not only breakdowns (coups) but also erosions to democratic institutions perpetrated by elected governments themselves. 

The Charter embodied a consensual understanding of democracy in the Americas and gave “teeth” to the OAS for coping with democratic backslidings. 

Under the IADC regime the OAS could not only name and shame governments that violate democratic institutions, but also dispatch fact-finding missions, apply sanctions, and suspend states either by consensus of the member states or, as in the case of suspensions, by qualified majority. 

Many observers have pointed out that the dramatic events of September 11 2001 helped the speedy adoption of a policy that had sparked much resistance during its drafting and negotiations. In fact, right after passing a declaration condemning the attacks, the resolution that brought into force the IADC was signed by all 34 OAS member states. Yet, the September 11 terrorist attacks were also crucial for the future of the IADC in a different sense: they marked a dramatic shift in world politics in general and for Inter-American relations in particular. The liberal script that had been enthusiastically embraced by the United States and Latin American governments in the 1990s which allowed the development of instruments promoting and protecting democracy was abruptly abandoned. Washington adopted instead a security-based approach more in line with a sovereignty-based order rather than the liberal international order in which the “global right to democracy” was supposed to thrive. This major shift in US foreign-policy and its disengagement with Latin America opened room for revisionist national and regionalist models like the Bolivarian project adopted by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, or the “new-developmentalist” projects promoted by Lula da Silva in Brazil.  Several alternative models were followed by various left-wing governments of the so-called “pink-tide”. In the case of Venezuela, the new model also came with a different understanding of democracy that underscored popular participation over representation. 

Somewhat ironically, the IADC came into existence precisely when the conditions that made it possible – a political and economic liberal consensus – had suddenly vanished. 

The first decade of the IADC was marked by increasing attempts at autonomy by left-wing Latin American governments, especially those that followed Hugo Chávez’s charismatic leadership and regional vision. This implied, among other things, the creation of regional forums as alternatives to those of the OAS, and democracy-protection policies as alternatives to the IADC. There were two major challenges for the IADC regime during its first decade of existence: one was forum shopping, the tendency of governments to seek out alternative venues and policies that better fit their interests. The other was contested multilateralism, where governments seek to challenge the existing institutions through the promotion of counter norms and policies. The creation in 2008 of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and its own democratic protocol and electoral observation council was a case in point of both tendencies. UNASUR was made up only of South American states and provided an alternative forum to the OAS to manage crises of democracy and to monitor elections.

In its second decade, the IADC navigated uncharted waters marked by the economic and political downturn of Brazil, the autocratization and economic collapse of Venezuela, the increasing polarization between left-wing and right-wing governments, and the arrival of right-wing populists to power in Brazil and in the United States. The Trump administration revived the Monroe Doctrine and flirted with the use of force to bring Maduro’s regime down. In 2017, a group of Latin American countries bypassed the OAS and created a parallel coalition – the Group of Lima – to bring about regime change in Venezuela. In short, the chief challenge of the IADC during its second decade of existence became unilateralism and the risk of its own descent into irrelevance. 

Partial enforcement and dubious effectiveness

Since its adoption in 2001, 38 political crises have been brought to the attention of the OAS. The IADC was enforced in slightly more than a half of all cases. In 42 percent of the cases, the OAS member states arrived at the conclusion that the crisis at stake did not amount either to an “interruption of the democratic order” or an “alteration of the constitutional regime” and hence there was no enforcement. For example, the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was commented on by the OAS Secretary General through a press release. Yet, the IADC was not invoked, and no actions were taken despite the irregularities of the process. Likewise, after the assault on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 – which, according to most observers and to the Senators in charge of the impeachment procedures against President Donald Trump was tantamount to an attempted coup against the Congress – the General Secretariat issued a statement condemning the action, but the IADC was not even mentioned. In a series of crises, the IADC was not enforced because the most powerful member states simply decided against it. 

This happened in cases in which powerful member states have some sort of “sensitive linkage” with the government in question. A case in point was the electoral fraud by the Honduran incumbent, President Hernández in 2017. Notwithstanding the serious irregularities detected by the OAS electoral observation mission (EOM) and the activism of the Secretary General requesting new elections, the United States, Mexico, and other member states swiftly recognized Hernández as the legitimate president. As a consequence, the Permanent Council did not discuss the issue, the EOM and the Secretary General were discredited, and the IADC was not enforced. Political affinities and security concerns (on issues such as migration and drug trafficking) between the US government and Hernández may explain this outcome. 

In other cases, the country under discussion was itself a “powerful member state of the OAS”. The above-mentioned political crisis of Brazil in 2016 and the United States in 2021 are two clear examples. 

There seems to be a cognitive bias that makes state representatives find unconceivable the enforcement of the IADC against big states, some of which also happen to be the main contributors to the OAS budget. 

A relationship of tutelage emerges in which big states are perceived as the enforcers and small states the targets. In fact, with the partial exception of Venezuela a medium state in which the IADC has been enforced four times, the more frequent targets of the IADC have all been relatively small states like Bolivia (4), Nicaragua (3), and Ecuador (2). OAS sanctions have only been applied in two cases: Haiti (in 1991) and Honduras (in 2009) which are also rather small states. 

The active role of powerful member states in obstructing enforcement and the tutelage relationship between large and small member states undermines the legitimacy of the OAS and the IADC. When the enforcement of a norm is perceived as partial and inconsistent (for instance only applicable to small states), the compliance pull of those under its scope diminishes and the norm risks becoming obsolete

How effective has the IADC been in those cases in which it has been enforced? At a minimum, effectiveness means achieving the goal of changing the behavior of the targets. These goals are embedded in OAS resolutions, but they can vary depending on whether the IADC acts preventively or ex-post. In the former cases, the IADC is invoked, for instance, in declarations of support when executives face domestic turmoil. In those cases, the survival of the government could be said to indicate “goal achievement”. However, to conclude that those governments survived “thanks” to the IADC would certainly be an overinterpretation. In the latter cases, when the IADC is enforced ex-post, goals are more demanding as, for instance, to return to office a president who has been ousted by force, or reverse an electoral fraud or a coup against the parliament.  

If we focus exclusively on these latter cases, we can roughly say that the goals were achieved in three of every nine attempts. But this interpretation must be contextualized before drawing any conclusion about effectiveness. For example, in some of the cases in which goals were achieved it is hard to establish a direct connection between the enforcement of the IADC and the solution of the crisis. The IADC was enforced for the first time to reestablish President Chávez (who ironically had opposed the instrument during its drafting) after a coup in 2002. However, Chávez was reestablished in office less than 24 hours after the coup, so the role of the IADC was marginal if not completely spurious. The achievement of goals in Honduras 2009, after the coup against President Zelaya, is also arguable. After electoral normalcy was restored through the election of President Lobos, the suspension of Honduras was lifted. However, the stated goal of the OAS of reestablishing Zelaya in office was not achieved. Hence, there is only one case left – the defense of President Morales’s government in 2008 after an attempt of secession in Bolivia – in which goals were fully achieved with an important role of UNASUR in a rare example of a joint-mission with the OAS.

The IADC and the challenges ahead 

Many observers have argued that the IADC needs to be reformed in order to overcome inconsistent enforcement and enhance its effectiveness. Any such reform would probably imply taking the job of enforcement out of the hands of member states, or conferring more authority on the Secretary General and/or other semi-autonomous bodies such as the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Yet this reform is unlikely as long as the member states monopolize enforcement. As the example of the U.N. Security Council shows, the OAS is not the only international organization that faces these kinds of obstacles to reform. 

But perhaps more importantly, the future of the IADC looks rather grim. This is not only due to internal obstacles to reform, but mainly because the OAS has no authority to deal with the fundamental sources of democratic decay in contemporary democracies globally, and in American democracies in particular: the crisis of representation, the crisis of deliberation, and the crisis of welfare. 

The crisis of representation has to do with the breakdown of the link between citizens and national public authorities. Its roots are to be found in the distance between political parties and citizen’s demands, as well as the capture of parties by private interests such as national and transnational business. This fraying of the social fabric causes citizens to feel they have little personal stakes in the workings of their governments, fueling disaffection with democracy. As such, the democratic promise of political equality among citizens becomes truncated.

Together with representation, public deliberation is another fundamental element that distinguishes democracies from autocracies. As in the case of representation, the institutions of public deliberation are also under attack. In some democracies the mass-media are increasingly harassed by governments, as happened under the government of Correa in Ecuador and Chávez in Venezuela. In many others, such as contemporary United States and Brazil, to mention just two examples, the market-power of business groups ensure a myopic media and impairs its pluralism. Those corporate groups that control the media wield structural power over “the will of the people” and, hence, over contemporary democratic systems. In the last decade, a new challenge to public deliberation has emerged. Digital platforms and social media have exponentially increased interconnectedness and access to information, but they have also  contributed to the fracturing of public spheres into echo chambers, the tribalization of politics, and the global spread of disinformation.

Finally, contemporary democracies are facing a crisis of welfare. The legitimacy of a political regime, be it a democracy or an autocracy, comes under strain when citizens perceive that their “life-chances” – to use Max Weber´s concept – do not improve according to their expectations. Chile has been commonly depicted as an exemplary democracy in the region, and its political class has been praised for reducing poverty and building sound political and economic institutions. Yet, in October 2019, around one million Chileans took to the streets demanding “dignity” and pressing for a radical overhaul of a socio-economic model perceived as deeply unfair. Similar uprisings have taken place in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Guatemala. The dramatic economic toll bred by the pandemic on the middle and lower classes in Latin American societies could push citizens to opt for authoritarian and populists political leaders and platforms, instead of the democratic liberal elites that have been unable to deliver public goods and tackle social inequalities.  

The OAS and its IADC are incapable of dealing with these latest sources of disaffection with democratic governance. Contemporary crises of democracy are directly connected with the dynamics of global capitalism and, therefore, private actors such as banks, credit rating agencies, transnational corporations including digital platforms, are part of the problem (and perhaps the solution) to those crises. The OAS – as most international organizations – continue to be attached to a Westphalian notion of “international society” in which sovereign states are the main (if not the only) protagonists. As a consequence, the OAS and its IADC are doomed to enter on the scene at the peaks of the crises, leaving the ultimate sources of democratic decay untouched. 

This author thanks the support of the Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico (FONDECYT), grant 11190134

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Kasia Krzyżanowska

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