Can the OAS Respond to Constitutional Coups and Democratic Erosion?

Guest Author: Adam Ratzlaff [1]*

Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has faced mounting criticism for his handling of recent democratic crises in Latin America. In particular, people have called Almagro’s approach to Venezuela hypocritical, given his lack of condemnation for the “soft-coup” in Brazil. However, Almagro’s handling of these democratic crises highlights the predicament facing the OAS when addressing threats to democracy in the 21st century. Although the challenges are evolving, the institutional tools for addressing them have not.

The days of traditional military led coups in Latin America appear to have come to an end. While this statement may lead to a sigh of relief, it does not mean representative democracy in the Western Hemisphere has been fully consolidated or is here to stay. Rather, the threats to democracy in the region have evolved, constituting an even greater threat to democracy in Latin America. Some of these threats arise from the push to rewrite national constitutions in many countries throughout the Hemisphere, as occurred in Venezuela in 1999 and Ecuador in 2008 among others. While not a threat to democratic governance itself, many of these rewrites focused power within the executive, allowing presidents to override congressional and judicial approval to pursue their own agendas. This problem is further exacerbated when populist leaders feel they are justified in doing so based on their mandate following elections. Further strengthening the role of executive power in many countries throughout the Western Hemisphere is the push to extend term limits and presidential reelection limits. Attempts to extend reelection limits have occurred in several countries including, most recently Evo Morales’ attempt in Bolivia. Although this may not appear to threaten democratic practice, extending term limits can create incentives for corruption and incumbent presidents are more likely to manipulate electoral rules.

Another challenge to democratic governance in the Americas is the erosion of civil liberties and political rights. The imprisoning of political opponents and limits on the freedom of the press represent threats to the liberal democratic order. Even though elections may still take place, these actions prohibit them from being free and fair. The rise of illiberal democracies represents a major setback for democratic governance in the region. An increasingly common threat to democracy in the Americas comes from the overthrow of elected officials through semi-legitimate coups. These have proven to be particularly contentious as the mechanisms used to “impeach” a president are often constitutional, but with questionable motives and evidence. Although a relatively new phenomenon, this process occurred in 2009 in Paraguay with the congressional coup against former President Fernando Lugo and, most recently, in 2016 with the impeachment process of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. In both of these cases, constitutional mechanisms were utilized, but the evidence supporting the impeachment process was questionable, if not fabricated.

In 2001, the Organization of American States passed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which allows the Secretary General of the OAS to call for a meeting of the Permanent Council in the event of “…an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime…” The Democratic Charter also permits countries to ask for help from the OAS in strengthening their electoral systems and rule of law, but the OAS may not intervene without the expressed permission of the host country. The evolving threats to democracy pose a unique challenge for the OAS, as the institution seeks to balance its respect for executive sovereignty and its defense of democratic norms. In cases such as Venezuela, while there has been no clear “unconstitutional alteration of power,” it is evident the Chavez/Maduro regime has eroded civil and political the rights and as such of its citizens and the opposition and is unlikely to seek help from the OAS to strengthen democratic practices. In the case of Brazil, although all indications point to the removal of Rousseff as a coup, the mechanisms used have been constitutional, albeit questionably so.

While critiques of Almagro’s handling of the democratic crises in Brazil and Venezuela may be warranted, it is important to understand his hands are tied by the mechanisms at the disposal of the OAS to address these threats to democracy. Although the OAS and Almagro haven been criticized for being pawns of U.S. imperialism, the OAS has voted against U.S. interests and even altered U.S. positions in the past. Rather than viewing OAS actions as an attempt to pursue U.S. interests or as hypocritical, it is better to critique the challenges the OAS has in invoking the Democratic Charter. Despite the challenges facing the OAS in promoting democracy in the Americas, it remains the most legitimate actor in pursuing the democracy agenda in the region. In order for the OAS to effectively defend democracy in Latin America against evolving threats, the Democratic Charter must permit the organization to evolve to meet these challenges.

[1] Adam Ratzlaff is a Sié Fellow and M.A. candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He has previously worked with the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and Southern Pulse Correspondents on issues related to Latin American politics and economics as well as US-Latin American relations. Adam holds a B.A. in International Relations, Economics and Latin American from Tulane University.

*Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the Southern Pulse.