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Choosing a Captain in the Storm

Democracy is under assault across the globe. According to Freedom House, 68 countries saw declines in freedom in 2018 marking 13 years of declines in global freedom. In the Americas, democracy also faces numerous challenges, ranging from the democratic crises in Bolivia and Venezuela to El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele marching the military into the legislature and the erosion of liberal democratic norms in several countries cross the region. It is in this moment of crisis that the Inter-American community must choose who is to lead the Organization of American States (OAS). But given these threats to democracy, what should member states look for in selecting the new leader of this international organization?

As the central organ of the Inter-American system, the Organization of American States was designed to support four key pillars: human rights, democracy, integral development, and collective security. Specialized organizations and divisions have been created within the Inter-American system to address several of these pillars as well including the Inter-American Development Bank, the Inter-American Defense Board, and Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Even with all of these institutions, no specific organization has been created to address the democracy pillar of the OAS mandate. Instead, the OAS has taken it upon itself to be the standard bearer of this pillar. While the OAS should focus on addressing all four of its pillars and has divisions devoted to each of these areas, whomever is the Secretary General should focus on serving a coordinating role with the other organs of the Inter-American system to find ways of collectively addressing development and security issues while pushing programmatic efforts in defending and promoting democratic governance in the region.

In 2001, the OAS created a mechanism for defending democracy in the region; the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Charter provides the OAS with the ability and responsibility to address “…an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state…” by allowing the Secretary General of the OAS or a member state to call a special meeting to address a crisis and determine the course of action for the Organization. However, the Charter has been used rarely and inconsistently. Although the Charter has been invoked to address the two military coups that have occurred since the Charter’s passage, the OAS has faced numerous challenges in addressing other challenges of democracy such as democratic backsliding, “impeachment coups,” and the weaponization of constitutional rewrites.

With the region facing an array of threats to democracy, the OAS must now select its next Secretary General. Three candidates are currently seeking the position; incumbent Secretary General Luis Almagro, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, and Hugo de Zela Martínez. While all of these candidates would bring something to the Organization, they also each have their own problems. Although Luis Almagro won the position uncontested in 2015, during his tenure he has become a contentious figure, largely due to his expansion of the OAS’s role in defending democracy and his unequal application of the democratic charter. On the other hand, de Zela played an integral role in the creation of the Lima Group, a group of countries developed to find a solution to the democratic crisis in Venezuela through continued dialogue. While this would appear to be a good measure, the existence of the Lima Group hinders OAS efforts to find a solution to the crisis by creating opportunities for the Maduro regime to choose alternative venues to work through. Conversely, Espinosa has criticized the role of Almagro and the OAS and wishes to rebalance the OAS towards working on the other pillars of the organization. While Almagro has had a troubled record in equally applying the defense of democracy, both Espinosa and de Zela have their own problems in supporting the OAS’s democratic mission.

Whomever takes the helm as the Secretary General of the Organization of American States must find a way to maintain a course between the defense of democracy in the region and the tension of what constitutes a democratic rupture. Navigating the shoals of democratic crises and challenges will not be an easy task for the Organization of American States, but a successful candidate for the position of Secretary General must put forward a policy to address these crises if the OAS is to live up to its role as the defender of democracy in the Americas. As member states try to decide which candidate that they will vote for on March 20th, protecting democracy in the region should be a priority.

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Adam Ratzlaff

Adam Ratzlaff is a PhD student in International Relations at Florida International University. His research interests include U.S.-Latin American foreign policy, Sino-Latin American foreign policy, Pan-American cooperation, the defense of democracy in the Americas, and economic and social development in Latin America. Ratzlaff has previously conducted political and economic analysis for several groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds a MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies (University of Denver), as well as a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. Feel free to connect with Adam either via LinkedIn or on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
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