Charting a course to irrelevance

January 31, 2011

From The Economist, Jan 27th 2011

IN 2001, after the autocratic Alberto Fujimori had resigned as Peru’s president, the transitional government that succeeded him proposed that the Organisation of American States (OAS) establish an “Inter-American Democratic Charter”. Such a document, it was hoped, would help prevent Mr Fujimori’s illegal assault on his country’s institutions from being repeated elsewhere in the region. That September, 34 countries signed the charter into being, proclaiming that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” Those that did not would be suspended from the OAS, as Cuba was in 1962.

The charter’s first test came the following year, when a coup briefly toppled Hugo Chávez as Venezuela’s president. Latin America’s heads of state, who were conveniently assembled at a Rio Group meeting, promptly denounced the attempt to overthrow him and called for the OAS’s Permanent Council to be convened. But since Mr Chávez was restored to power within two days, no action had to be taken.

Now it is Mr Chávez, whose democratic credentials have always been suspect, who is running afoul of the charter. He first earned notoriety as the leader of a failed coup in 1992, and explicitly rejects representative democracy in favour of an institution-light version he calls “participatory democracy”. As elected president since 1998, he has concentrated ever more power in his own hands, eliminated judicial independence and displayed a cavalier disregard for the 1999 constitution he himself ushered in. He dismisses external tutelage of his civil-rights record as “interference in internal affairs”.

To date, the charter has only been invoked in response to coups—the failed one against Mr Chávez in 2002 and a successful one against Manuel Zelaya of Honduras in 2009. But when Venezuela’s rubber-stamp congress granted Mr Chávez sweeping legislative powers last month, to the detriment of an incoming legislature with a much-enhanced opposition presence, even José Miguel Insulza, the normally cautious secretary-general of the OAS, felt obliged to speak out. Venezuela’s “enabling law”, he said, was “completely contrary” to the charter, and he refused to rule out referring the matter to the Permanent Council. In response, Mr Chávez’s congressional supporters called opposition leaders who visited the OAS to press the case “traitors” and threatened them with legal action.

Sadly, Mr Insulza has received little support so far. Only Venezuela’s close allies, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia have taken a position—in defence of Mr Chávez. The case of Brazil, which aspires to regional leadership and is explicitly committed to representative democracy, is particularly incoherent. The country went to extreme lengths in seeking the restoration of Mr Zelaya, housing him in its Honduran embassy for months after he sneaked back across the border from exile. But it has a close relationship with the Venezuelan regime. The silence of Dilma Rousseff, its new president, has been deafening.

The Venezuela case suggests that the hopes surrounding the signing of the charter were far too lofty. Despite the shocking removal of Mr Zelaya in 2009, the classic coup is still facing extinction in the Americas. Today, the biggest threat to democracy in the region comes from leaders who, once elected, set about undermining it from within. But the OAS, which operates as a club of heads of state, only seems inclined to condemn anti-democratic attacks against sitting leaders, while turning a blind eye to political wrongdoing committed by those currently in office. As a result, what was supposed to be a clear and objective list of criteria for OAS membership has become just another reflection of the region’s political power balance. The danger is that not just the charter but the OAS itself will sink into irrelevance.