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The Hemispheric Community and Slow-Motion Coups

Bolivian President Evo Morales has steadily undermined his nation’s democratic institutions, leading Andres Oppenheimer and others to claim that a “slow motion coup” is occurring in the country. The Andean nation has seen a number of challenges to liberal democratic practice since Morales first came to power in 2006. Perhaps the most pervasive challenge has been Morales’s attempts to evade presidential term limits and maintain power over the country. Soon after taking office, Morales carried out a referendum to rewrite the national constitution. Although the new constitution did not allow presidents to run for consecutive reelections, Morales claimed that as there was a new constitution, he was able to run for (and win) reelection in 2009. In 2014, Morales once again ran for office after he held a national referendum, which granted him this right. While these efforts have expanded inclusion and even appear legal and democratic, they have also allowed Morales to weaken the liberal safeguards of democracy in Bolivia. As we approach the 2019 Bolivian elections, Morales once again seeks to manipulate electoral procedures to ensure yet another term. After a 2016 failed referendum that would have permitted him to run for another term, he now claims that seeking reelection is a human right – a position supported by the Bolivian courts. This manipulation of the Bolivian constitution has strengthened Morales’s position at the expense of other branches of the Bolivian government. He has further ensured his ability to win reelection by limiting the power of the press and weakening democratic processes. In a December Miami Herald op-ed, Oppenheimer raised an important question regarding this “slow motion coup”: Why haven’t nations in the Western Hemisphere condemned Evo Morales attempts to derail democracy in Bolivia?

Former Argentinian President Cristina Fernández with the Presidents of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and Venezuela, Hugo Chávez
Image courtesy of the Presidency of the Nation of Argentina © 2009

Despite Bolivia’s challenges, the Trump administration has blasted the “Troika of Tyranny,” consisting of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, while avoiding any mention of the ongoing democratic erosion in Bolivia and other countries. Likewise, the Organization of American States (OAS) and nations throughout the Americas have focused on democratic crises in Nicaragua and Venezuela while largely ignoring the situation in Bolivia. Oppenheimer notes that this could be due to U.S. domestic political considerations and low levels of violence. Unlike the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan governments, the Morales government has not used its security forces to put down political opponents or seen a sharp increase in political violence. Oppenheimer also highlights that the United States may be hesitant to pursue tough policies in Bolivia because the Bolivian diaspora is significantly smaller and less politically powerful in the United States than the Cuban and Venezuelan diasporas. Reasons for inaction on the part of the OAS and the rest of the Hemispheric community are more complicated.

The OAS in 2001 passed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which granted it the authority to combat democratic breakdowns in the region. However, the OAS still faces challenges in addressing these threats, in part because of the tension between the conflicting principles of sovereignty and intervention. When it was founded in 1948, the OAS sought to promote collaboration in order to protect democratic governance and rule of law in the Americas. However, this is in direct conflict with the ideals of national sovereignty and non-interference that are enshrined in the OAS. This makes it difficult for the Inter‑American community to respond to domestic political problems in member states and hampers the OAS’ ability to act in cases where leaders breach democratic norms.

Other problems have also emerged. Since the Charter was passed in 2001, Latin America has seen only two attempted military coups – in Venezuela (2002) and Honduras (2009)* – compared to 26 in the 1970s and 1980s. Only one of these post-Charter coups was successful, and the OAS was quick to act and invoke the Charter in both cases. This decline in coups and quick response of the OAS highlights one of the areas where the Charter has proven successful—in preventing traditional military coups.

However, the OAS has been unable to respond to the erosion of democratic norms, what Oppenheimer referred to as “slow motion coups.” These types of democratic breakdowns differ radically from the military coups. Unlike democratic erosion, a military coup entails a clear “…unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime…” of a member state. For many member states, the slow-motion and often semi-legal nature of democratic erosion do not rise to the level of a military coup and thus falls outside the purview of the Democratic Charter. Similarly, there have been cases of questionable presidential impeachments in the region that follow national constitutional mechanisms while using questionable legal processes and rationales. As such, the OAS does not find itself responding to these types of democratic deviations.

By not acting in cases of democratic erosion, the OAS has created as new set of problems for itself and for the defense of democracy in the Americas: de facto acceptance of these actions under the Inter-American Defense of Democracy Regime. The acceptance and proliferation of government actions that weaken democracy and undercut free and fair elections highlights this dynamic. One of the types of policies that Evo Morales has used is constitutional rewrites and referendums to secure his reelection despite constitutional limitations. Morales is far from the only Latin American president to use this mechanism, but the OAS has yet to condemn this practice or trigger the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The OAS’ failure to condemn these actions signals to other leaders that these policies are acceptable. As more leaders enact these policies, it becomes increasingly difficult for the OAS to condemn these actions and spurs more leaders to pursue these undemocratic practices. While constitutional rewrites are one example of this, there is a clear pattern in the use of referendums, manipulating term limits, presidential impeachments, and restrictions on the free press. Perverting democratic norms through the de facto acceptance of these types of policies and violating the spirit of the Charter weakens the OAS’s ability to respond to democratic crises.

It is critical that the Inter-American community challenge all types of democratic erosion that occur in the region. However, in order for the OAS and other actors in the Americas to successfully defend democracy, we must first address the limitations that they face in tackling democratic erosion. Only then can they improve the collective response mechanisms to these “slow-motion coups” and effectively defend democracy in the Americas.

*In a previous version of this post, the autho stated that an attempted coup occurred in Paraguay in 2009. While there was a democratic crisis that involved the military, despite fears, this event did not escalate to the point of a coup attempt. The author apologizes for any confusion.


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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