Let’s defend democracy!!… but which one? And against whom?

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Since the early 1990s, Latin American political elites have enthusiastically embraced the values and practices of democracy. At the international level this enthusiasm was translated into collective commitments to defend democracy against its enemies, through specific instruments added to the legal frameworks of the regional organizations existent in the region. The tendency has continued in the new millennium as new organizations – such as the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) have also committed to assist, and if necessary to sanction those countries in which democracy is breached.

Liberal intellectuals and politicians rapidly (maybe too rapidly) interpreted any such regional development as a further proof of the consolidation of democracy in the western hemisphere. Yet, it is worthy to have a more careful look at this phenomenon especially in a phase in which illiberal democracies, competitive authoritarian and truly authoritarian regimes seem to come emerge and stay for a while alongside the good democracies in the Americas as well as in Europe.

In the following lines, I would like to illustrate some of the intriguing issues and challenges that Latin American governments and regional organizations face when they commit to the collective defense of democracy.

Which “democracy” should be protected”?

There is no single, uncontested definition of what democracy is. As we showed together with Carlos Closa and Pablo Castillo in a study published by the EU-LAC Foundation, the understanding of what democracy is varies a great deal between and within regional organizations. Negotiating among 28 (EU) or 35 (OAS) national governments what democracy means and, conversely, which types of actions constitutes a “democratic breach” can be a daunting task. The solution found in most regional organizations in Latin America, but also in Europe, has been to keep the definition “imprecise”, rendering the collective commitment to democracy an incomplete contract.

Certainly, there are different degrees of imprecision; and there are also different ways to be imprecise. In the Americas, the Inter-American Democratic Charter of the OAS, for instance, stands out as a relatively precise instrument spelling out in several articles what democracy means. During the drafting of the Charter there was a conflict between two conceptions: while most delegations defended the concept of representative democracy, the Venezuelan delegation strove for introducing the notion of participatory democracy. The former prevailed, but in a broad conception encompassing elements from the latter such as political participation, as well as other socially-progressive elements such as gender equality.

The instruments of the Andean Community (CAN), the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are far less precise. CAN’s Additional Protocol does not define democracy altogether. Yet, this was not an impediment to define sanctions against non-democratic behavior. SICA and CARICOM, in turn, are imprecise but not because they are too austere (like CAN), but on the contrary, because they are too ambitious: these organizations list a large variety of values and principles, without explicitly connecting them neither to the definition of democracy nor to explicit procedures about what to do when those principles are violated.

Imprecision may be considered an institutional shortcoming. Indeed, it is in many ways. However, it is also functional for those who must enforce those instruments, namely the national governments. Let’s recall that unlike human right protection regimes in which there are autonomous judicial institutions (e.g. the Inter-American Court of Human Rights), democracy protection rules are interpreted and enforced by the governments themselves. Hence, the incumbent governments get a wide room for maneuver and discretion when rules are imprecise, and they can decide when and how to enforce them. Furthermore, the lack of precise rules paves the ways to bring power and ideological considerations to the negotiation table as when Argentineans and Brazilians decided to enforce democracy-protection rules and suspend Paraguay from Mercosur, while simultaneously approving the accession of Venezuela hitherto blocked by the Paraguayan parliament.

Who’s the victim, who’s the offender …

Democracy must be defended, ok, but against whom? And who must be protected? Who “embodies” democracy? These issues are easier to solve in a human rights protection regime, since there is a list of rights to be protected and because those rights are embodied in individuals that can resort to the judicial bodies with human right jurisdiction no matter whether national, or international.

All this becomes significantly blurrier when it is about the defense of democracy by regional organizations, not only because the definition is imprecise but also because it is not clear who is the victim of a violation of democracy and to whom the victim (whoever it is) should resort for relief.  If we analyze the design and cases of enforcement in Latin America, it is not hard to realize that there is a strong bias towards conceiving incumbent governments as the victims. This is largely explained by the fact that Latin American states are all presidential regimes and also because the history of coups d’état in the region. As long as presidents have been democratically elected, any attempt to remove a president by unconstitutional means is automatically considered a democratic breach. The Heads of State and Government (the executive branch) are therefore the natural victims, but what about the other branches of the state or the organizations of the civil society?

The bias towards the incumbent makes most regional organizations in the Americas prone to become “government-protection” rather than “democracy-protection” mechanisms as Carlos Closa and I have argued elsewhere. That being said, the recent history of the region shows that this bias can take quite different forms depending on the political context. Bearing in mind that periodization is always problematic, we still can identify three distinct moments since early 1990 when the first regional commitments to protect democracy were made: the liberal, the post-liberal, and the one we are entering now, too early to be baptized.

The liberal moment (1988-2001)

In this first juncture, most countries were exiting from military regimes (South America) or from civil war (Central America). The transition to democracy was underpinned by a wide pro-democracy international movement supported by the United States and the European Union, both engaged in promoting liberal democracy and liberal market economies in their respective backyards: Latin America and Eastern Europe. Democracy was the “spirit of the time”, and Latin American governments were happy to show off their democratic credentials in all possible forums including regional organizations, which became clubs of democracies.

To determine who was the victim and who the offender, was a relatively easy task during the liberal moment. Latin American governments believed that the victim of authoritarian backsliding were the new unstable democracies, such as Haiti, Paraguay and Bolivia. Governments of equally young democracies such as Argentina, Brazil or Chile considered themselves as lands in which democracy was already “the only game in town”, and therefore supported the collective commitment to protect democracy in their unstable brother countries. The offenders of democracy were, of course, the military still politically active in those unstable democracies, and the collective instrument to protect democratic regimes took the shape of democratic clauses that were supposed to dissuade ruthless personages such as the Paraguayan General Lino Oviedo from carrying out coups. The Protocol of Washington (OAS), the Protocol of Ushuaia (Mercosur) and the Framework Treaty on Democratic Security (SICA), the latter with a stronger security component, were cases in point of liberal instruments of democracy protection.

I would argue that the liberal moment ended with the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter (OAS) that happened the same day of the fatidic September-11 in 2001.  The Charter, in fact, was already inspired by a different type of “offenders”, such as Alberto Fujimori and his “auto-golpe” and therefore represents an institutional evolution compared to the previous democratic clauses.

The post-liberal moment (2002-2013)

Following José Antonio Sanahuja, we can call the decade that followed the adoption of the Democratic Charter “post-neoliberal” as it was characterized by governments ideologically at odds with the liberal ones in the 1990s. Left-leaning governments came to office with political programs oriented to reforming in a more or less radical way enduring social and economic structures, therefore fueling political opposition. Whereas in some cases opposition was canalized through institutional channels, in others it took the shape of the traditional coups (e.g. Venezuela 2002, Honduras 2009, Ecuador 2010). Yet in other cases political opposition took a sort of hybrid nature, being neither fully respectful of institutional channels nor following the model of the traditional coup d’état, for which the democratic clauses had been designed (e.g. Nicaragua 2004, Bolivia 2005, 2008, Ecuador 2005, Paraguay 2012).

Left-leaning governments contended that they had become the new victim of anti-democratic actions, especially under the subtle shape of a new threat: the so-called “institutional or soft coups” articulated by reactionary forces opposing social change in their societies. And left-leaning government could make the case, as they had indeed very good examples. They demanded and designed more adequate democratic clauses better adapted to the new scenario. The Protocol of Georgetown (Unasur, 2010) and the Protocol of Montevideo-Ushuaia II (Mercosur, 2011) were designed to respond not only to flagrant coups, but also to the “threat of breach against the democratic order” – a category under which “institutional coups” could easily fit. More importantly, those new democratic clauses sharpened their teeth by providing a list of sanctions including not only the suspension from the organization, but also harsher economic and diplomatic sanctions against those states in which a coup – hard or soft – would take place.

The current moment (since 2013)

The dead of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the controversial election of his appointed successor Nicolás Maduro open, in my opinion, a new phase in the short history of collective democracy protection in Latin America. As it happened in the late 1990s with the neoliberal governments, the economic crisis (with the help of domestic mismanagement) is now eroding the political support of leftist leaders. As a consequence, central right governments are coming to power through elections (like Mauricio Macri in Argentina), or not (like Michel Temer, who is acting as a President after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil).

Why is this period different from the previous ones? Not only because the arguable change in the ideological position of several key governments in the region, but more importantly because the questions who is the victim and who is the offender of democracy are being answered in a different way. Certainly, some left-leaning governments can still claim that they are being object of “soft coups” like Nicolás Maduro who has claimed so throughout his entire mandate. However, the Venezuelan crisis has shown that also the civil society can claim to be the victim of the non-democratic behavior of an elected government, and resort to regional organizations to demand democracy protection.

As Andrés Malamud has convincingly argued, the list of proofs supporting Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian turn is long: the shutdown of press, the violation of civil and political rights, the imprisonment of political adversaries, etc. For more than two years after the election of Maduro, the regional organizations (especially the OAS and Unasur) were paralyzed in their incapacity to determine who is the victim: was it the elected government threatened by the orchestration of a soft-coup? Or instead, (some parts) of the civil society threatened by increasing authoritarian governments? The OAS was rapidly fended-off by the own Mauro’s government, while Unasur languished after an exhausting mediation process in which it has been accused by many national and international actors of taking the governments’ side. This accusation reflects the already mentioned strong structural bias of Latin American regional organizations towards protecting the incumbent.

The pro-incumbent bias was challenged though, when in July this year the general secretary of the OAS Luís Almagro, former foreign minister of Uruguay, initiated the procedures to activate the democratic clause of the organization against the Venezuelan government. Almagro begins his intervention with a remarkable exhortation to the national representatives: “The OAS must know today whether its Democratic Charter is a strong instrument to defend the principles of democracy, or if it is to be shelved in the archives of the organization. You have definitively the voice”. Although the clause has not been applied to Venezuela thus far (and it will be probably not), this intervention entails a chief significance inasmuch as, without breaking the pro-incumbent bias, it has at least unveiled its tensions.

Protecting democracy in “illiberal times”

What will be the future role of regional organizations as defenders of democracy in Latin America? One can suggest scenarios. We can certainly say that Latin American governments are not locked into any pre-established trajectory towards democratic consolidation as some liberal scholars suggested decades ago. The collective commitment to democracy took the form of a highly incomplete contract that left wide space to the governments to accommodate future political uncertainty. Today, this uncertainty comes not only from the region, but also and maybe mostly from outside. Whereas during the “liberal moment” democracy seemed to be the “spirit of the time” diffusing from the US and Europe to the rest of the world, the contemporary political discourse in the US as in Europe is plagued by appeals to the inequality of citizens, the exclusion of minorities, and the return of racisms and nativism as legitimate discourses in the public sphere.

Latin American political actors will look at other regions and other regional organizations to see how they act and react to political developments that are certainly not democratic no matter which definition of democracy we want to take.

The optimistic scenario entails a process of gradual “completion” of the democratic-contract through instruments that precise and widen the concept of democracy by accepting, for instance, that no only incumbents, but also the demos can be the victim of a violation of democracy committed by democratically elected governments. This optimistic scenario would imply among other things to confer a more relevant role to the supra-state bodies of the organization in deciding when and how to apply those mechanisms. During the liberal and the post-liberal moments, the governments worked out a basic consensus about what was the democratic commitment about. This consensus will be hard to maintain in the years to come as the ideological spectrum of governments becomes more heterogenous in the region and everywhere else. And precisely this lack of basic consensus, might foster the search for a more precise roadmap, namely higher precision in the definitions and rules and, perhaps, more delegation of competences from the governments towards more independent bodies.

The pessimistic scenario starts from the same premises but draws different conclusions. The lack of consensus and the emergence of blurry cases of political distress that cannot be easily classified as coups, will inhibit governments to make use of the regional organizations and their democracy protection instruments. Let us just think that some of the policies announced by the elected President of the US during the campaign, Donald Trump, are at odds (if not simply violate) various of articles of the OAS Democratic Charter. The fact that for the first time since the OAS adopted a democratic commitment, a US government could pursue anti-democratic policies according to the own definition of the organization, shows the levels of uncertainty that the governments of the region as well the regional organizations will face. And uncertainty will most probably breed paralysis, in which case the General Secretary Almagro’s warning might become real: the democratic clauses will be shelved in the archives of the organizations …. At least for a while.

Regardless which of the two scenarios will prevail, there is no doubt that these will be exciting years for political science.


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