Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), has been an outspoken proponent for democracy in Venezuela. Even before Juan Guaidó invoked the country’s Constitution and declared the Venezuelan presidency vacant, under Almagro’s direction the OAS has become a fierce promoter of democracy in the Americas and the defender of free and fair elections. But although Almagro has championed the cause of democracy in Venezuela and Honduras, he has failed to protect democracy in other countries in the region and, in so doing, has threatened the legitimacy of the OAS to respond to democratic crises like the one currently occurring in Venezuela.
On September 11, 2001, while much of the world watched the Twin Towers fall in New York, foreign ministers from all of the democratically elected nations of the Americas (representing all sovereign states in the region with the notable exception of Cuba) met in Lima, Peru to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Charter served as the culmination of the efforts of several governments in the Americas to develop a regional mechanism that would defend newly established democratic regimes in the hemisphere from coups, democratic breakdowns and the abuse of executive power. The Charter conferred the Secretary General with the power to address democratic crises by calling for special meetings of the OAS and granting the organization the ability to suspend membership of undemocratic members.
Under Almagro’s leadership—elected Secretary General in 2015—the OAS has attempted to use the Democratic Charter to restore democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela. Almagro has sought to use the OAS on multiple occasions as a mechanism through which to challenge the Maduro regime and has officially recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Although the push for democracy in Venezuela has been hampered by the limitations of the Democratic Charter and regional geo-political realities, the fact remains that the OAS has pushed for a return to democracy in the country. Yet, with all the valid focus on Venezuela (but not as a consequence of this), the OAS has failed to prevent similar incidents from arising in other countries in the region—with Almagro providing cover to some extent, for some of these threats to democracy.
While the OAS was relatively quick to invoke the Charter during the military coups in Venezuela (2002) and Honduras (2009), it has been less ready to act in other cases of democratic breakdown. One such example is the impeachment of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in 2012. Although the event was widely referred to as a “parliamentary coup” because of the lack of due process involved in the decision, the OAS did not respond. Four years later, Brazil also experienced a presidential impeachment process. As was the case during Lugo’s impeachment, the underlying crime that then President Dilma Rousseff was accused of committing was dubious, leading many to refer to the impeachment process as undemocratic. By not taking action against the first impeachment, the OAS provided de facto acceptance of the use of impeachment to remove democratically elected leaders, even in cases where the evidence of a crime is scant.
Even in cases when the OAS has addressed concerns of possible democratic backsliding, the follow through has lacked. This is most evident in Honduras in the aftermath of the 2017 presidential election. The OAS Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) noted a number of problems with the integrity of the election, including cases of vote buying, violations of secret balloting, the announcement of results before tallying had finished, and evidence of computer interference in the counting process. These irregularities are all the more problematic given that the election marked the first time that a president had been allowed to run for re-election in Honduras, a problem highlighted by the EOM. It is important to note that the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya had occurred over concerns that he was trying to seek re-election. While the Honduran Supreme Court overturned the constitutional ban on re-election in 2015, many were concerned with the hypocrisy of allowing President Juan Orlando Hernández to seek a second term given that the coup removed a predecessor for attempting to do the same. Although the OAS upheld the EOM report and called for new elections, as time passed, the organization did not maintain the same amount of pressure on the Hernández administration and now recognizes Hernández as Honduras’ legitimate leader.
With the OAS failing to pressure Honduras following these electoral irregularities, the stance that Almagro has taken regarding the recent political machinations of Bolivian President Evo Morales marks a further weakening of the OAS legitimacy as a tool for the promotion of democracy. Like many leaders in the region, since assuming the presidency, Morales has taken a number of steps to concentrate power within the executive branch and undermine the liberal safeguards of Bolivian democracy. Most notably, Morales has sought to guarantee his ability to run for president indefinitely. Assuming the presidency in 2006, Morales quickly held a national referendum to rewrite the national constitution, which allowed him to run and win a second five-year term. Despite restrictions in Bolivia’s new constitution that denies a president the ability to run for more than two consecutive terms, Morales ran and won a third term in 2014—on the basis that his first presidential term did not count because it occurred under the old constitution.
With Evo Morales now concluding three consecutive terms as President of Bolivia, he remains unwilling to step aside and allow another to come to power. In 2016, Morales held a national referendum that created an exception that would allow him to run for a fourth presidential term. However, the referendum failed. Despite the public rebuke and the constitutional prohibition on running for consecutive re-election, Morales turned to the courts, claiming that the restriction violated his human rights. The Bolivian courts not only heard Morales’s case, but also agreed with his stance. These actions have led some to claim that a “slow motion coup” is occurring in Bolivia.
Despite Morales’ repeated attempts to run for re-election, the OAS has not condemned these actions. Instead, Luis Almagro praised the court’s ruling noting that banning presidential re-election was discriminatory to Morales. Almagro took his remarks a step further noting that there could be no comparison between Morales and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, despite the fact that both leaders have fought against term-limits on their presidencies. Almagro’s action not only undermines the democratic process in Bolivia but limits the ability of the OAS to act as a neutral arbiter in other cases of undemocratic action. The hypocrisy of praising Morales while simultaneously seeking to castigate Maduro weakens the moral authority of the OAS in Venezuela.
Providing cover for the democratic erosion in Bolivia and failing to continue speaking out against the threats to democracy in other member states, such as in Honduras, risks the legitimacy of the OAS and perverts the intentions of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Not only does it create an environment in which other democratic crises will likely arise in the future, it also provides carte blanche for leaders in other countries to take similar actions. With the Democratic Charter, the OAS should serve as the bulwark of democracy in the Americas. However, as we have seen with the crisis in Venezuela, the institution is starting to take a back seat to impromptu groups like the Lima Group. If Almagro continues to provide defense for undemocratic action in the Americas and does not deal with the democratic breakdowns across the region, he risks undermining the very institution that he has been tasked with running.