The New Kids on the Bloc
Rhetorical and normative commitment to both national sovereignty and popular sovereignty has always existed in tension in the Americas. In the past 15 years the growing trend has been for countries and the new crop of multilateral organizations to emphasize—both in rhetoric and practice—national sovereignty over the rights of citizens and popular sovereignty.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the founding charters and recent actions of UNASUR and CELAC.
For example, the preamble to UNASUR’s charter asserts “unlimited respect” for state sovereignty first and only later mentions “unlimited respect for human rights.” The charter articulates clearly the organization’s main purpose: regional integration and global rebalancing, which is to be based on respect for national sovereignty. And while UNASUR later added language echoing the OAS’s Democratic Charter, with the exception of the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras and the accelerated impeachment of former president Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, it has failed to address the deterioration of democracy in the region.
According to its own mandate, UNASUR’s role in monitoring elections is to accompany a state’s electoral commission—a sharp contrast to the international standard of serving as an independent arbiter between popular will and the state. Nowhere was this pro-government bias more prominent than in Venezuela’s 2013 presidential elections to replace deceased president Hugo Chávez. Despite a broad popular outcry over alleged pre-electoral violations in the wake of the closeness of the election results, UNASUR held firm in its election-day endorsement of the process. In a statement UNASUR declared: “the results must be respected since they originate in the National Electoral Council, CNE, the only competent authority in the matter according to Venezuela’s constitution and legal framework.”
CELAC’s December 2011 charter commits the body to “the right of each nation to build freely and peacefully its own political and economic system,” before it mentions human rights. This is no mistake. The only nondemocratic country in the hemisphere, Cuba, is a member of CELAC.
Over time, CELAC has deepened its relations with the new Global South. In a 2011 meeting in Cuba, CELAC and China agreed to create a joint forum. Three years later Brazil hosted a China-CELAC forum, and on January 8–9, 2015, Beijing hosted the first ever ministerial forum between China and CELAC. In the most recent summit, CELAC members committed the organization to solidifying ties to Turkey, China, India, and Africa.
The net effect of these new bodies and their toothless, plagiarized democracy clauses has been to create parallel forums more favorable to the interests of autocrats. While that suits Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, the larger question is why other countries have continued to collaborate, especially those that in the UN and in the inter-American system have been steadfast supporters of political and civil rights and norms. One of those was Argentina under the Kirchners, and the other is Brazil. The latter has championed UNASUR as a way of exerting its power in the region by marginalizing the United States and ostensibly by containing former president Chávez’s more ideological regional ambitions to create a “Bolivarian” alliance of the Americas. But in continuing to support these organizations in their present form, Brazil has enabled the erosion of effective multilateralism and international law, which it regularly proclaims it supports.
These intentional or unintentional oversights and weaknesses come at real risk that the region will not be able to react collectively to threats not just to the internal democratic order but also to the deterioration of human and democratic rights in countries. On the next page is a map of some ongoing hotspots in the region. Are the new kids on the bloc up to the task? In terms of protocol and recent experience, they’re on a pretty shaky foundation.