Democracy and multilateralism are under siege around the world. Global levels of freedom declined annually over the past 11 years and there has been a frightening increase in populism in recent years. On the multilateral front, the Trump administration has vowed to cut funding for international organizations, the United Kingdom is pulling out from the European Union, and several nations are turning their backs on international trade. These changes pose challenges for the current international order.
The Americas are no exception to this trend. Despite nearly all countries transitioning to democracy during the so-called Third Wave of Democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, the late 2000s have seen a number of democratic crises emerge. From changes to national constitutions that limit checks on executive power to restrictions on the media, and from full military coups to the rise in questionably-motivated impeachments, there have been a number of challenges to democratic governance in the region.
Although Cuba is typically considered the nation in the Americas with the greatest democratic deficits, it is not the only country in the Americas where democracy is threatened. Venezuela currently faces a number of challenges to its democracy. Over the course of the past two decades, a number of democratic crises have occurred within this once-prosperous oil-producing nation. In 2002, segments of the Venezuelan military attempted to oust then-President Hugo Chavez, himself an attempted coup participant a decade earlier. While these military coups d’état highlight the largest direct challenges to democratic governance in Venezuela, the Chavista governments of both Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro took steps to drastically curtail political and civil rights in the country, including cracking down on the media and jailing of political opponents. More recently, Nicolas Maduro manipulated electoral procedures to prevent a recall election and had the Venezuelan Supreme Court appropriate the National Assembly’s legislative duties.
Despite the democratic crises that the region has seen since the turn of the millennium, it’s encouraging to see that the nations of Latin America have reaffirmed their commitments to multilateralism and democratic governance. On September 11, 2001, while the rest of the world watched terrorists attack the United States, foreign ministers from across the Americas were meeting to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a resolution allowing the Organization of American States (OAS) to take steps to defend democracy in the Americas. While there are a number of challenges to successfully implementing the Democratic Charter, the OAS has taken a number of important steps in recent years to strengthen the Defense of Democracy regime. From the historic use of OAS election monitors in the 2016 U.S. elections to the OAS’s suspension of Honduras following its 2009 coup, the Organization of American States and its members have shown a remarkable commitment to democratic governance and multilateral approaches in the Americas.
The OAS has also taken steps to ensure that democratic governance returns to Venezuela. Initial attempts to discuss Venezuela’s democratic crises faced opposition both from Venezuela and from regional allies who feared OAS interference in their own affairs. Although this concern continues, the current OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, has continued to put pressure on the Venezuelan government to restore democratic order. After years of frustrated efforts, on March 28, Luis Almagro was able to get the Organization of American States’ members to vote on the crisis facing Venezuela. While the vote did not result in forceful efforts to confront the Maduro regime (nearly all of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America [ALBA] voted against taking action in Venezuela), it was an important first step in addressing the ongoing crisis. With Maduro’s March 29 decision to revoke the National Assembly’s legislative powers, the OAS may now have grounds to revisit the issue and develop a collective response to the crisis in Venezuela.
The OAS under Luis Almagro’s leadership has taken important steps towards reasserting the importance of international institutions and democratic norms in the Americas. While a number of regional threats to democratic governance and multilateralism remain, the efforts undertaken by the OAS highlight the region’s commitment to the Pan-American ideals of collective action and democratic governance. Despite the challenges that the OAS faces in implementing its Defense of Democracy regime, Almagro continues to push efforts forward to ensure democratic governance is a regional norm and enforced. With democratic governance and multilateralism are in retreat around much of the globe, the OAS still serves as a beacon for promoting these goals. If Almagro can find a suitable solution to the crisis in Venezuela, it will mark an important win for democracy and multilateralism in the Western Hemisphere.