Defending Democracy in Latin America…but Which Democracy?

Anti-government protests by students block a major highway. Caracas, Venezuela, February 12, 2017. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

Since the early 1990s, political elites have enthusiastically embraced the values and practices of democracy in the Americas. At the international level, this enthusiasm translated into collective commitments to defend democracy against its enemies, through specific instruments added to the legal frameworks of the regional organizations existing in the region. The tendency has continued in the new millennium as new organizations such as the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) have also committed themselves to assist and, if necessary, to sanction those countries in which democracy is breached.

Liberal intellectuals and politicians were quick (maybe too quick) to interpret these regional developments as further proof of the consolidation of democracy in the Western Hemisphere. Yet, it is worth taking a more careful look at this phenomenon, especially in a phase in which illiberal democracies, competitive authoritarian, and truly authoritarian regimes seem to be coming to stay, at least for a while, alongside traditional democracies in the Americas and in Europe.

Which “Democracy” Should Be Protected?

There is no single, uncontested definition of what democracy is. As we showed together with Carlos Closa and Pablo Castillo in a study published by the EU-LAC Foundation, the understanding of what democracy is varies a great deal between and within regional organizations. Negotiating among 28 national governments (in the European Union) or 35 (in the Organization of American States, OAS) what democracy means and, conversely, which types of actions constitute a “democratic breach” can be a daunting task. The solution found in most regional organizations in Latin America, but also in Europe, has been to keep the definition imprecise, thus making the collective commitment to democracy an incomplete contract.

Certainly, there are different degrees of imprecision, and there are also different ways of being imprecise. In the Americas, the Inter-American Democratic Charter of the OAS, for instance, stands out as a relatively precise instrument spelling out in several articles what democracy means. During the drafting of the Charter, there was a conflict between two conceptions: While most delegations defended the concept of representative democracy, the Venezuelan delegation strove for introducing the notion of participatory democracy. The former prevailed, but in a broad conception encompassing elements from the latter such as political participation, as well as other socially progressive elements such as gender equality.

The instruments of the Andean Community (CAN), the Central American Integration System (SICA), and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are far less precise. CAN’s Additional Protocol does not define democracy altogether. Yet, this was not an impediment to define the sanctions against non-democratic behavior. SICA and CARICOM, in turn, are imprecise, not because they are too austere (like CAN) but, on the contrary, because they are too ambitious: These organizations list a large number of values and principles without explicitly connecting them to the definition of democracy or to explicit procedures about what to do when those principles are violated.

Imprecision may be considered an institutional shortcoming. Indeed, it is in many ways. However, it is also functional for those who must enforce those instruments, namely the national governments. Let’s recall that unlike human right protection systems in which there are autonomous judicial institutions (e.g. the Inter-American Court of Human Rights), democracy protection rules are interpreted and enforced by the governments themselves. Hence, the incumbent governments enjoy a wide room for maneuver and discretion when rules are imprecise, and they can decide when and how to enforce them. Furthermore, the lack of precise rules paves the way for bringing power and ideological considerations to the negotiation table, as when Argentines and Brazilians decided to enforce democracy-protection rules and suspend Paraguay from Mercosur, while simultaneously approving the accession of Venezuela, hitherto blocked by the Paraguayan parliament.

Who is the Victim, Who Is the Offender?

Democracy must be defended, but against whom? And who must be protected? Who “embodies” democracy? These issues are easier to solve in a human rights protection system, since there is a list of rights to be protected and because those rights are embodied in individuals that can resort to the judicial bodies with human right jurisdiction, national or international.

All this becomes significantly blurrier when we deal with the defense of democracy, not only because the definition is imprecise, but also because it is not clear who is the victim of a violation of democracy and to whom the victim (whoever he, she or it is) should resort for relief.  If we analyze the design and the cases where the instruments for democracy protection in Latin America have been enforced, it is not hard to realize that there is a strong bias towards conceiving incumbent governments as the victims. This is largely explained by the fact that Latin American states are all presidential regimes, and also because of the long history of coups d’état in the region. As long as presidents have been democratically elected, any attempt to remove them by unconstitutional means is automatically considered a democratic breach. The heads of state and government (the executive branch) are therefore the natural victims, but what about the other branches of the state and the civil society organizations?

The bias towards the incumbent makes most regional organizations in the Americas prone to become “government-protection” rather than “democracy-protection” mechanisms as Carlos Closa and myself have argued elsewhere. That being said, the recent history of the region shows that this bias can take quite different forms depending on the political context. We can identify three distinct moments since early 1990s, when the first regional commitments to protect democracy were made: the liberal, the post-liberal, and the one we are entering now, which it is perhaps too early to baptize.

The Liberal Moment (1988-2001)

In this first juncture, most countries were exiting from military regimes (South America) or from civil war (Central America). The transition to democracy was underpinned by a wide pro-democracy international movement supported by the United States and the European Union, both engaged in promoting liberal democracy and liberal market economies in their respective backyards: Latin America and Eastern Europe. Democracy was the “spirit of the time”, and Latin American governments were happy to show off their democratic credentials in all possible forums, including regional organizations, which became clubs of democracies.

Determining who the victim was, and who the offender, was a relatively easy task during the liberal moment. Latin American governments believed that the victims of authoritarian backsliding were the new unstable democracies, such as Haiti, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The governments of equally young democracies such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile considered their countries to be lands where democracy was already “the only game in town,” and they therefore supported the collective commitment to protect democracy in their unstable brother countries. The offenders of democracy were, of course, the military still politically active in these unstable democracies, and the collective instrument to protect democratic regimes took the shape of democratic clauses that were supposed to discourage ruthless generals from carrying out coups. The Protocol of Washington (OAS), the Protocol of Ushuaia (Mercosur) and the Framework Treaty on Democratic Security (SICA), the latter with a stronger security component, were cases in point of liberal instruments of democracy protection.

I would argue that the liberal moment ended with the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter (OAS), hastily approved on 9/11, 2001.  The Charter, in fact, was already inspired by a different type of “offenders”, such as Alberto Fujimori and his “self-coup” and therefore represents an institutional evolution compared to the previous democratic clauses.

The Post-Liberal Moment (2002-2013)

Following José Antonio Sanahuja, we can call the decade that followed the adoption of the Democratic Charter “post-neoliberal” as it was characterized by governments ideologically at odds with the ones in the 1990s. Left-leaning governments came to office with political programs oriented to reforming, in a more or less radical way, established social and economic structures, thus fueling political opposition. Whereas in some cases opposition was canalized through institutional channels, in others it took the shape of traditional coups (e.g. Venezuela in 2002, Honduras in 2009, Ecuador in 2010). Yet, in other cases, political opposition took on a hybrid nature, neither fully respectful of institutional channels nor following the model of the traditional coup d’état, for which the democratic clauses had been designed (e.g. Nicaragua in 2004, Bolivia in 2005 and 2008, Ecuador in 2005, Paraguay in 2012).

Left-leaning governments contended that they had become the new victim of anti-democratic actions, especially under the subtle shape of a new threat: the so-called “institutional or soft coups” articulated by reactionary forces opposing social change. And left-leaning governments made their case, as they had indeed very good examples. They demanded and designed more adequate democratic clauses, better adapted to the new scenario. The Protocol of Georgetown (Unasur, 2010) and the Protocol of Montevideo-Ushuaia II (Mercosur, 2011) were designed to respond not only to flagrant coups, but also to the “threat of breach against the democratic order”—a category under which “institutional coups” could easily fit. More importantly, these new democratic clauses sharpened their teeth by providing a list of sanctions including not only the suspension from the organization, but also harsh economic and diplomatic sanctions against the states in which a coup—hard or soft—would take place.

The Illiberal Moment (Since 2013)

The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the controversial election of his appointed successor Nicolás Maduro open a new phase in the short history of collective democracy protection in Latin America. As it happened in the late 1990s with the neoliberal governments, the economic crisis (with the help of domestic mismanagement) is now eroding the political support of leftist leaders. As a consequence, center-right governments are coming to power through elections (like Mauricio Macri in Argentina), or not (like Michel Temer, after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil).

Why is this period different from the previous ones? Not only because the arguable change in the ideological position of several key governments in the region but, more importantly, because the questions of who is the victim and who is the offender of democracy are being answered in a different way. Certainly, some left-leaning governments can still claim that they are being object of “soft coups”—like Nicolás Maduro, who has been claiming this throughout his entire mandate. However, the Venezuelan crisis has shown that civil society can also claim to be the victim of the non-democratic behavior of an elected government, and resort to regional organizations to demand democracy protection.

As Andrés Malamud has convincingly argued, the list of proofs supporting Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian turn is long: the shutdown of press, the violation of civil and political rights, the imprisonment of political adversaries, etc. For more than two years after the election of Maduro, the regional organizations (especially the OAS and Unasur) were paralyzed in their incapacity to determine who is the victim: Was it the elected government threatened by an orchestrated soft-coup? Or is it (some parts of) civil society, threatened by an increasingly authoritarian government? The OAS was quickly fended-off by Maduro’s government, while Unasur languished after an exhausting mediation process in which it was accused by many national and international actors of taking the government’s side. This accusation reflects the already-mentioned strong structural bias of Latin American regional organizations towards protecting the incumbent.

The pro-incumbent bias was challenged, though, when in July 2016 the general secretary of the OAS, Luís Almagro, former foreign minister of Uruguay, initiated the procedures to activate the democratic clause of the organization against the Venezuelan government. Almagro began his intervention with a remarkable exhortation to the national representatives: “The OAS must know today whether its Democratic Charter is a strong instrument to defend the principles of democracy, or if it is to be shelved in the archives of the organization. Please, have your say.” Although the clause has not been applied to Venezuela so far, this intervention is of great significance since, without breaking the pro-incumbent bias, it has at least unveiled the tensions surrounding it.

Protecting Democracy in “Illiberal Times”

What will be the future role of regional organizations as defenders of democracy in Latin America? One can suggest several scenarios. We can certainly say that Latin American governments are not locked into any pre-established path towards democratic consolidation, as some liberal scholars suggested decades ago. The collective commitment to democracy took the form of a highly incomplete contract that left governments a wide space in which to accommodate future political uncertainty. Today, this uncertainty comes not only from the region, but also—and perhaps mostly—from outside. Whereas during the “liberal moment” democracy seemed to be the “spirit of the time” spreading from the US and Europe to the rest of the world, the contemporary political discourse in the US and in Europe is dominated by discussions concerning citizen inequality, the exclusion of minorities, and the return of racism and nativism as legitimate discourses in the public sphere.

The optimistic scenario involves a process of gradual “completion” of the democratic-contract through instruments which define more precisely and widen the concept of democracy by accepting, for instance, that not only incumbents, but also the demos can be the victim of a violation of democracy committed by a democratically elected government. This optimistic scenario would imply, among other things, conferring a more relevant role to the supra-state bodies of the organization in deciding when and how to apply these mechanisms. During the liberal and the post-liberal moments, the governments worked out a basic consensus about the democratic commitment. This consensus will be hard to maintain in the years to come, as the ideological spectrum of governments becomes more heterogeneous in the region and the US seem less interested in endorsing liberal values. However, in the optimistic scenario, this lack of basic consensus might offer an opportunity to come up with a more precise roadmap—namely, higher precision in the definitions and rules and, perhaps, more delegation of competences from the governments to more independent bodies. Of course, this will only be possible if there is a regional leadership filling the gap that, at least under the last four administrations (including the current one), the US has seemed unwilling to fill.

The pessimistic scenario starts from the same premises but draws different conclusions. The lack of consensus and the emergence of cases of political distress that cannot be easily classified as coups, will inhibit governments in making use of the regional organizations and their democracy protection instruments. The fact that, for the first time since the OAS adopted a democratic commitment, a US government could be pursuing policies at odds with the organization’s own definition of democracy shows the levels of uncertainty that the governments of the region, as well the regional organizations, are facing. And uncertainty together with a lack of an alternative leadership from a Mexico too attached to the North, and a Brazil too domestically troubled, will most probably breed paralysis—in which case, General Secretary Almagro’s warning might become real: The democratic clauses will be shelved in the archives of the organizations…at least for a while.

Stefano Palestini is a Chilean political scientist and sociologist. He researches the role of regional organizations in democracy promotion and development at the Free University of BerlinThis article was originally published on Open Democracy.