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Depoliticizing Democratic Crises at the OAS

At the Organization of American States’ (OAS) 47th General Assembly in Cancun, Mexico, representatives from the across the Americas voted on whether or not to censure Venezuela in an effort to address the democratic and humanitarian on-going crisis. Unfortunately, this effort failed, with 14 nations voting against censure. There can be little argument that a crisis exists in Venezuela or that the Maduro Regime has eroded rule of law and democratic processes. The failure to censure Venezuela, or to implement the Democratic Charter in this case, highlights some of the central challenges that exist within the Inter-American defense-of-democracy regime.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of State (c) 2017

Two of the founding tenets of the OAS are respect for national sovereignty and the importance of democratic governance to the well-being of the hemisphere. These two ideals are, however, in constant conflict. With the exception of full-blown military coups, an occurrence that is becoming less prevalent in the Americas, national governments themselves are frequently responsible for the erosion of political and civil liberties within their borders. Thus, it is nearly impossible for the OAS to address democratic backsliding without violating the national sovereignty of its member states. This tension between the sovereignty and defending democracy complicates multilateral solutions to democratic crises in the Americas.

Another problem that is evident in the defense of democracy regime is the politicization of democracy. Although all OAS member states have demonstrated their support for democratic norms through their ratification of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, voting in favor of invoking the Democratic Charter still depends on the national interests of individual countries rather than on the facts of the situation. One needs to only look at those nations that voted against censuring Venezuela. Many states that opposed censuring Venezuela are members of either the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) or Petrocaribe. Both of these groups were founded by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in an effort to increase Venezuela’s influence in the Americas, disrupt U.S. hegemony, and provide members with financial support from Venezuelan oil revenues. These nations cannot deny the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, but voted based on national interest rather than in support of regional democratic and humanitarian norms.

Despite these issues, the OAS remains the most legitimate actor for defending democracy in the Americas. Other regional institutions that could play a role include the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the South American Union (UNASUR). CELAC does not have mechanisms for supporting the defense of democracy in the region and the inclusion of Cuba as a full member delegitimizes its credibility on this front. UNASUR, on the other hand, has mechanisms to support the defense of democracy regime. However, UNASUR’s track record at promoting democratic governance is weak at best and their election accompaniment missions have been derided as little more than rubber-stamping exercises for faulty elections. So, rather than seeking an alternative institution to promote and defend democratic governance in the Americas, the OAS mechanisms should be strengthened.

One possibility is through the establishment of a permanent expert board on democracy. This panel should include experts on democratization from throughout the Americas and provide guidance and recommendations to the OAS General Assembly not only when a democratic crisis emerges, but also on efforts to prevent these conditions from arising. This could provide the OAS with political cover in cases where democratic crises are imminent, but when a full coup that would trigger the implementation of the Democratic Charter has not yet occurred.

Having an expert panel advise the OAS on a course of action when a democratic crisis occurs would help to alleviate some of the political pressure related to implementing the Democratic Charter. Members of the panel would represent the viewpoints of different nations, but, like members of the IACHR, would be subject to approval by the General Assembly and would be expected to be experts in their field. While judgements and policy recommendations by a panel of democracy experts may not be enough to persuade all member states to pursue them, reports from an approved expert panel could pressure regional governments to pursue more democratic practices.

While the creation of an expert panel would help to alleviate some of the challenges that the OAS currently faces in addressing democratic crises in the Americas, defending democracy in the Americas depends on the will of member states. While the political pressures that currently make invoking the Democratic Charter difficult would still exist, the creation of an expert panel can help assuage some of the fears of lost sovereignty, particularly if the panel is elected or approved by the General Assembly. For international institutions to function, members must be willing to risk the loss of some national sovereignty for the greater good.


For more on the challenges that the OAS faces in implementing the Inter-American defense of democracy regime in the contemporary Western hemisphere and policies to help address them, please check out my chapter in Inter‑American Relations: Past, Present, and Future Trends.


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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