The Precedent of Inaction
On October 18, 2019, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, spoke at Florida International University about the future of democracy in the Americas. Mr. Almagro noted that the democratic crisis in Venezuela did not occur in a single fell swoop, but rather as the result of repeated, small assaults on democratic governance. While much of the discussion focused on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, Almagro was asked about criticisms that he has faced regarding the OAS’ inconsistent responses to assaults on democracy in Bolivia from its president, Evo Morales, compared to its reactions to other democratic crises in the region. Almagro claimed to not understand these critiques and that these people wanted him to set precedents for the OAS where there were none. He said these critics are trying to foment a crisis and called for them to encourage Bolivians to vote Morales out if that was truly the will of the Bolivian people.
Just two days after Almagro’s talk, Bolivia held its first-round vote for president. On the Sunday evening of October 20, with 83% of votes counted, it appeared likely that the election would turn to a second-round runoff between President Evo Morales and former Bolivian President Carlos Mesa. Suddenly, the results stopped being reported. When reporting resumed Monday, Morales had pulled ahead and was leading by nearly the required 10 percentage points required to avoid the runoff election. The OAS Electoral Observation Mission put out a strongly worded response noting the irregularities in the results and thousands of Bolivians have taken to the streets over what appears to be an attempt to steal the election. This marked the beginning of a rapidly evolving political crisis in Bolivia, culminating in the Bolivian military calling on Morales to resign – something he did hours later.
The world is now paying attention to Bolivia, but Morales’ gradual weakening of the liberal safeguards of Bolivian democracy has been a “slow-motion coup.” When he was first elected president in 2006, he held a national referendum to rewrite the constitution, a move designed to provide greater enfranchisement and anti-corruption measures, but which also resulted in a strengthening of the executive branch. Although the constitution barred consecutive reelection, Morales claimed that he could run in 2009 because his first term had been under the previous constitution. In 2014, Morales used a national referendum to seek reelection once again. In 2016, Morales tried again to run for reelection via a national referendum, but this time the Bolivian people rejected his request. Instead of respecting this rebuke, Morales successfully took his case to Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Court, claiming that it was his human right to seek reelection. All of this allowed him to run for reelection this year, sparking the crisis that we see today.
Since the first round of the Bolivian elections, protests have continued and the OAS called on Bolivia to hold a second round of elections even if Morales had crossed the 10 point lead threshold in order to boost the perceived legitimacy of the election. With protests intensifying, on November 9, the police forces in multiple cities mutinied against the government and the military declared that they would not fight the protesters. The next day, the OAS Electoral mission released its report on the election, noting numerous irregularities. Morales agreed to rerun the elections, but shortly after, the military called on him to resign. Following the military call for his resignation, Morales resigned. This move has sparked Morales and others to also claim that this was a coup. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Morales’s policies or how this crisis has unfolded, all can agree that the situation is chaotic with plenty of blame to go around. However, much of this crisis was avoidable.
The Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed by the foreign ministers of OAS member states in 2001, provides the OAS with tools and the responsibility to address democratic crises in the Western Hemisphere. The Democratic Charter also allows the Secretary General to call a special meeting of the foreign ministers of the Americas in the case of a democratic breakdown in a member state. These leaders can then take actions to restore democratic governance in the affected member state. While the Inter-Democratic Charter faces a number of challenges in being used to restore democracy and address democratic crises, it remains an important tool for defending democracy in the Americas.
While at the OAS, Almagro has been a staunch advocate of democracy in the Americas. However, his concerns over setting precedents are misplaced. As Almagro noted in the case of Venezuela, the erosion of democratic governance does not always come rapidly but can result from consistent, minor attacks on democracy. This suggests that addressing these small cuts on democratic governance is crucial to halting the erosion of democracy in a country. However, the OAS has been unable or unwilling to address the erosion of democracy in the region. When the international community, and in particular the OAS, fails to respond to the erosion of democracy, it provides tacit approval of undemocratic action, sets its own precedent, and highlights actions that other leaders can take without fear of reprisal. For instance, the process of using referendums to undermine term limits did not start in Bolivia. It has been used by several leaders in the Americas but was never condemned by the OAS. If the Inter-American Defense of Democracy Regime and the Inter-American Democratic Charter are going to be effective in protecting democratic governance in the Americas, leaders in the Western Hemisphere cannot be afraid to set precedents that defend democratic governance from the slow, but continual, assault by populist leaders on both sides of the political spectrum.
In response to criticisms over his response in Bolivia before the crisis erupted, Almagro said, “I don’t push countries into crisis. I try to rescue them.” However, as the cases of both Venezuela and Bolivia have shown, allowing for the slow erosion of democracy in the region and not addressing challenges to democratic governance as they emerge opens the door for greater democratic crises down the road. Only addressing threats to democracy before they become crises will successfully rescue democracy in the Americas.