The Organization of American States and Democratic Erosion: The Cases of Venezuela and Nicaragua

Winter Issue 2019

Written by: Leonardo Di Bonaventura,

INTRODUCTION

Latin America has experienced an unprecedented rise in democratic regimes since the 1990s. In 1991, the new democracies gathered in Santiago de Chile to strengthen the Inter-American documents through Resolution 1080, allowing members of the Organization of American States (OAS) to protect and promote democracy by taking collective action in cases of coups and autogolpes. Following the autocratic regime of Alberto Fujimori in Peru, member states reinforced Resolution 1080 and approved the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC) in 2001, in an incredibly fast process of “complex multilateralism,”[1] where intense negotiations between big and small states took place in a matter of months. The IADC also permitted the OAS to assess cases of “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime,” such as constitutional and electoral crises. Nevertheless, existing literature shows how these primary instruments for the protection and promotion of democracy in the Americas have had mixed results in cases of democratic erosion.[2]

The increase in populist regimes in the 2000s undermined the basic principles and norms of the IADC, yet OAS members neglected assessing these situations of democratic deterioration. Probably the most emblematic cases have been the democratic erosion and authoritarian backsliding of Venezuela and Nicaragua. These countries have incumbents that abused power, undermined horizontal accountability, manipulated the media, intimidated opposition and civil society, and systematically skewed the electoral playing field to their advantages. The OAS failed to prevent the leaders of these two countries from continuing the strangulation of the democratic institutions in their countries. Nevertheless, OAS members progressively pressured and condemned Venezuela after 2017 and later Nicaragua in 2018 for their undemocratic behavior and human rights abuses. I argue that the OAS only took collective actions against these two countries due to gross human rights violations against the opposition. Only after those violations, OAS member states began keenly assessing situations of democratic backsliding and taking action in these situations.

In order to explain how the OAS started to pressure undemocratic regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua, I will first analyze the path of democratic backsliding in these two countries. I will use the conceptualization of Waldner and Lust, where at least two of three dimensions of democratic governance (competition, participation, and accountability)[3] are degraded.[4] Additionally, I will proceed to analyze the “shifting balance of power that favors incumbents,” where they “seek partisan advantage” that worsens at least two of the three democratic dimensions previously mentioned.[5] After assessing the emerging authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua, I will show that human rights abuses were necessary but not sufficient for OAS members to respond and intervene in these two cases.

DEMOCRATIC EROSION IN VENEZUELA

Venezuelan democracy was one of the few and most stable democracies in Latin America during the second half of the 20th century.[6] However, the 1990s in Venezuela were marred by the degradation of civil liberties, low economic growth, and a corrupt political class that fragmented Venezuelan democracy. Hugo Chávez, the populist outsider winner of the 1998 presidential elections, took advantage of this political environment to transform the state through “plebiscitarian strategies,”[7] bypassing institutions and replacing horizontal for vertical accountability through top-down proposals[8]. Since then, Chávez and his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, have deteriorated Venezuelan democracy to install an authoritarian regime. Because “democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible,”[9] it became a hard task for multilateral institutions like the OAS to take notice of the worsening situation. There are two stages of clear democratic erosion in Venezuela: from 1999 to 2005, when it became an illiberal, “borderline” democracy,[10] and from 2006 to 2012, as Chávez consolidated the country into a competitive authoritarian regime. I refrain from labeling periods after 2012 as democratic backsliding, as it became clear Venezuela was no longer a democracy with profoundly weakened or non-existent democratic elements of governance, but a hegemonic authoritarian regime.

During the first period of democratic erosion in Venezuela, at least two elements of democratic governance were severely undermined. First of all, horizontal accountability, which is the checks and balances by other institutions, became almost non-existent by 2005. When Chávez came into power in 1999, he showed his populist attitudes. Because he was a personalistic ruler, he saw institutions as obstacles to his rule and weakened checks and balances by appointing party loyalists to state institutions, allowing him to amass almost absolute power in the executive.[11] During the whole tenure of his presidency, Chávez enjoyed a majority in the legislature, where his party never ceded to the opposition any parliamentary agency or commission of control over the executive. In 2004, without the necessary participation of the opposition, Chávez’s populist party, Movimiento V República (MVR), reformed the judiciary to appoint members by a simple majority of the legislature. Moreover,  he increased the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) membership from 20 to 32 members, packing the court with Chavista loyalists.[12] Since then, the judiciary has been controlled by Chávez and used as legal intimidation towards opposition parties and leaders. By 2004, Chávez had total control of the three major branches of government, destroying any possibility for the opposition to check the power of the executive.

Additionally, fair competition worsened. Since Chávez’s presidency started, the 5-member National Electoral Council (CNE), maintained a 3:2 majority in favor of Chávez that allowed him to manipulate the electoral arena in his favor, worsening the transparency of elections.[13] Furthermore, he made sure that the opposition would not be able to obtain any significant representation in this body. In 2004, the MVR purposely refused to appoint new CNE members through the legislature and transferred the power to unilaterally appoint new members to the Chávez-controlled TSJ. Since then, Chávez has enjoyed a 4:1 majority where the sole opposition representative of the CNE has no real influence. The politicization of the electoral institution severely discredited elections. Moreover, the electoral arena was further skewed to Chávez’s advantage through discriminatory spending, abuse of the media for campaigning, and patronage.[14] Any competition was crippled by the unequal access to media and state resources and the biased electoral commission.

This evidence shows that Venezuelan democracy had no accountability or fair competition. By 2005, Chávez’s regime lacked “checks and balances, bureaucratic integrity, and an impartial judiciary,” all attributes of liberal democracy.[15] Moreover, this type of “borderline” democracy leaned closer to authoritarianism, as the inclusion of a biased CNE and unfair electoral practices by the incumbent, which undermines the integrity of fair elections, is more authoritarian than democratic. In Pappas’ characterization of populists, Chávez’s populism attacked “constitutional legality, established procedural rules, instituted norms of deliberation, and overlapping consensus.”[16]

The incremental democratic backsliding of the second period (2005 – 2012) saw an apparent collapse of institutional accountability and electoral competition. Chávez intensified his populist and authoritarian behavior during this period. Under his new left-wing, populist party, Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), Chávez continued to exercise ultimate authority within the party, blocking any attempt of decentralization of power within his government.[17] Opposition rights were deeply undermined and the presidential term limit was eliminated during this period. As PSUV members dominated all state institutions, accountability for the executive branch became non-existing. The only alternative for the opposition to govern in any capacity was through regional governments. However, in the 2008 regional elections, Chávez used PSUV’s legal arm, the TSJ, to bar popular candidates from running. Also, Chávez’s total control in the legislature allowed him to regulate the resources of the regional government and reduce their power.[18]

The most notable attack on competition was through control of the media. According to Diamond and Morlino, electoral competition relies on aspects like opposition access to mass media and pluralism in media ownership.[19] Chávez’s closure of the opposition-leaning media outlet, RCTV, diminished fair electoral competition as he soon opened another state-owned media outlet, which offered no space for the opposition. Additionally, in 2009, Chávez changed the electoral system without consulting with the opposition.[20] This action was deliberate, as he malapportioned and gerrymandered electoral districts for the 2010 legislative elections, where his PSUV party obtained 59% of the seats with 48% of the votes, while the opposition won 39% of the seats with 47% of the votes.[21]

The ultimate demonstration of authoritarian behavior was the elimination of term limits. After narrowly losing a constitutional referendum in 2007 to form a “socialist state” and remove term limits, Chávez controversially proposed another referendum in 2009 to lift the presidential term limit, allowing him to run in the 2012 presidential election. This election, rife with “intimidation tactics, tight restrictions on the opposition, and the massive misuse of the state apparatus,”[22] reinforced Venezuela’s undemocratic regime. Chávez slowly killed Venezuela’s democracy using “a thousand cuts,”[23] and by 2012 there was only an undeniably competitive authoritarian regime in its place. Using Levitsky and Way’s framework of conceptualization,[24] this period of democratic backsliding fits the competitive authoritarian model. In Venezuela, democratic institutions exist, but they are institutional extensions of PSUV; elections are not perceived as the primary route to power; the opposition parties compete but are at a disadvantage against the institutional and economic resources of the Chavista government; and relatively moderate levels of electoral uncertainty are purposely maintained to create a façade of competition that does not exist in reality.

 By 2012, Chávez had violated the fundamental principles of democracy by any definition and with impunity. After his death in April 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, along with PSUV and the military, deepened Chávez’s legacy of destruction of democracy.[25] From 2013 onwards, Maduro quickly transitioned Venezuela into a pure authoritarian regime.[26] Chávez had already reduced democratic institutions to a façade status, but Maduro, lacking legitimacy and popularity, resorted to repression, fearing declining hegemonic power.[27] Both in 2014 and 2017, the opposition organized anti-regime protests, which the government crushed, killing more than 200 people.[28]

In 2015, when the opposition managed to obtain a 2/3 majority against all the odds in the legislature, Maduro used the CNE and TSJ to block a recall referendum against the president in 2016. In 2017, the judiciary disempowered the opposition-controlled legislature, and Maduro called a snap election for a constituent assembly election, which PSUV completely dominates. The constituent assembly, supposedly originated to draft a new constitution, has worked as a de facto legislature, lifting the parliamentary immunity of opposition deputies and ordering their imprisonment. Elections are neither seen as viable means to power. Since 2015, the CNE’s primary objective has been “to keep opposition groups and dissident PSUV faction off the ballot,”[29] such as former presidential runner Henrique Capriles.

From 62 political parties in 2016, only 17 exist today[30], of which 12 are small parties within Maduro’s coalition, Gran Polo Patriótico Simón Bolívar (GPPSB). Other 3 parties are too small to compete and act as agovernment-backed opposition with no real chance of winning (Avanzada Progresista [AP] and Movimiento al Socialismo [MAS]) or have been intervened by the government (COPEI). The remaining 2 opposition parties are able to compete but do not pose a threat to the authoritarian government by themselves (Acción Democrática [AD] and Un Nuevo Tiempo [UNT]). Hence, Maduro’s repression of the opposition through candidate and party restrictions, extrajudicial imprisonments, and voter intimidation has moved Venezuela into a hegemonic regime.

DEMOCRATIC EROSION IN NICARAGUA

Nicaragua demonstrates the second most emblematic case of democratic erosion after  Venezuela in contemporary Latin America. Similar my analysis of Chávez’s regime, I will evaluate two distinct periods of democratic erosion: 2007 – 2011 (illiberal, “borderline” democracy), and 2011 – 2018 (competitive authoritarianism). By 2018, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, had moved in the direction of his homolog in Venezuela to a hegemonic authoritarian regime.

In 2007, Daniel Ortega was officially elected after winning the presidential election of 2006. These elections took place amid fragmented parties and corruption scandals against former president Alemán.[31] Nicaraguan democracy was already entering into an illiberal, “borderline” democracy, most poignantly through the “infamous” pact of 1999 between the Ortega’s Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) and Alemán’s Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC), which “secured their joint control of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE)” and imposed restrictive electoral thresholds, reducing the number of parties[32]. This “party duopoly”[33] dominated politics for much of the 2000s, effectively giving the FSLN and PLC parties all decision-making power. However, Ortega’s victory in 2007 highly deteriorated democratic principles, transitioning Nicaragua’s democracy towards an illiberal, “borderline” democracy.

Competition weakened during this first period (2007 – 2011). Since the Ortega’s FSLN and Alemán’s PLC controlled the CSE, the former maintained influence within this body. Few internal challengers in the FSLN allowed Ortega to maximize this influence, as he rules the party in an authoritarian and personalistic way.[34] In the municipal elections of 2008, the CSE leaned in Ortega’s favor. For these elections, the CSE disqualified the Sandinista dissidents of the Movimiento Reformador Sandinista (MRS) from running, and intervened to change the internal structure of leadership of the opposition party Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense (ALN), replacing it with Sandinista loyalists.[35]The 2008 municipal elections provided little electoral uncertainty of the results, hence, giving an expected 85 of 91 municipalities to the FSLN.  These actions worsened the competitive aspect of these elections, characterized by protests and allegations of fraud, and the government did not allow local or international observers for these elections.[36]

Accountability was compromised as CSE was already under the almost total control of Ortega’s FSLN. The deliberate use of the CSE to ban important opposition parties for the 2008 municipal elections damaged local accountability. Nicaraguan municipal authorities exercise a great deal of power at the local level, thus authority over municipal governments is essential to maintain political control.[37] As a result, Ortega’s creation of a parallel municipal body, the Consejo del Poder Ciudadano (CPC), diminished any possibility of accountability at the local level to Ortega’s national authority since this body responded directly to him. By 2009, Ortega controlled the Supreme Court, the CSE, and almost all municipal authorities. In the National Assembly, Ortega did not enjoy a majority, but he used the Supreme Court to strike down any law that would enhance checks and balances, “increasing Ortega’s power over judicial and civil service appointments.”[38] Similar to Chávez’s rule in Venezuela, Ortega manipulated institutions so that the opposition could not exercise any checks on the government’s actions.

The presidential elections of 2011 marked a major further backslide of fair competition in Nicaragua. In 2009, using the Supreme Court again as the FSLN’s legal arm in the absence of a required majority in the legislature, Ortega was allowed to run for an immediate second period, even though immediate reelection is banned by the constitution.[39] These elections were not transparent, and the opposition continued to be largely divided.[40] Participation was also restricted, as several opposition representatives, domestic civil society, and international observers were not allowed to monitor certain polling stations, and they were “subjected to investigation, funding restrictions” and attacks by FSLN gangs and police.[41] Ortega not only obtained another term, but  68% of the National Assembly’s seats, which gave him “a virtual monopoly on formal structures of power.”[42] Thus, in 2011, Ortega transitioned Nicaragua toward a competitive authoritarian regime, resembling Chávez’s regime.[43]

After 2011, it is naïve to refer to Nicaragua as a democracy, given that full-fledged authoritarian regime had emerged. Ortega had already strangled already-weakened accountability, eliminated independent electoral authority, restricted political parties, monopolized campaign advertising for the FSLN, and continued attacks on independent media and journalists. This period was characterized by further use of authoritarian manipulation. Institutions were plagued by FSLN’s loyalists, letting Ortega rule the country unchallenged. In 2014, the National Assembly reformed the constitution to allow Ortega to rule by decree, to legalize indefinite reelection, and to give  him discretion in the appointment of military and police commanders.[44] Moreover, Ortega controlled almost half of Nicaragua’s media stations, maintaining an advantage in campaign resources vis-à-vis the opposition. Ortega put his wife and children in control of different institutions and businesses, further expanding his power.

The 2016 presidential elections reflected a critical factor for Ortega’s transitioning toward a hegemonic regime. The opposition, fragmented and weakened, boycotted the election. Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who ran as his vice-presidential candidate, obtained a landslide victory with 72% of the votes. Needless to say, the electoral environment remained unfair as was not fair. Not only Ortega enjoyed total control over state institutions and an asymmetrical economic advantage, yet he continued his “subversive” actions against the opposition. In June 2016, Ortega intervened once again in the leadership composition of the new main opposition party, Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI) , and stripped its National Assembly members of their seats, appointing Sandinista loyalists instead.[45] These elections “marked the emergence of a full-scale FSLN party-state, controlled by the Ortega-Murillo family,” moving the country from competitive authoritarianism “toward authoritarianism plain and simple,”[46] resembling a hegemonic authoritarian regime.

Nicaragua had slid into a hegemonic authoritarian regime. The FSLN “has become a hegemonic ruling party with a personalist bent.”[47] Ortega used institutional and economic measures to ensure his total control over power within Nicaragua and, like Chávez before him, continued to intervene, divide, delegitimize, and erode the opposition, giving them no real chance of winning or exercise any national or local power. The deadly effects of a full hegemonic regime came in April 2018, when the regime announced a social security reform. The social security system was under intense fiscal pressure due to the decrease of the cash inflows of Venezuelan petrodollars that allowed higher cash transfers. The people protested the reform and by extension the authoritarianism of Ortega’s administation. By November 2018, over 300 civilians were killed during the protests, with many being extrajudicially imprisoned or detained.[48] Since then, Ortega and Murillo have not been responsive to the opposition umbrella organization, Civic Alliance, which called for the resignation of the Ortega family. As in Venezuela, the hegemonic regime has been characterized by  single party rule (FSLN), repression and restriction of free media, total control of state institutions, military, police, and paramilitary gangs. Additionally, since the protests, the consolidation of the hegemonic authoritarian regime has been characterized by one where “the dominate political motif is that the opposition can be killed, imprisoned, or forced into exile at will and anyone thought not to be an enthusiastic Sandinista is being pushed out of his or her job.”[49]

OAS RESPONSES TO DEMOCRATIC BACKSLIDING IN VENEZUELA AND NICARAGUA

Venezuela and Nicaragua have been the most emblematic cases of democratic erosion and eventual authoritarian backsliding in Latin America. As shown above, this occurred in an gradual way as incumbents slowly but consistently destroyed democracy.  Other scholars have also pointed out to the erosion of democracy and eventual authoritarian backsliding of Venezuela and Nicaragua,[50] as shown above in my analysis. However, the OAS, which commits to promoting and protecting democracy in the Americas, did not intervene to prevent these backslidings. It was not until 2017 that the OAS passed a Permanent Council (PC) resolution condemning actions by the authoritarian regime in Venezuela. Similarly, in 2018, a PC resolution was passed to condemn the actions of the Nicaraguan government. I argue that it was the clear and  hostile human rights violations in both countries that triggered necessary motives for the OAS member states to pass resolutions and take actions that put pressure on authoritarian regimes.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC) is the main instrument of the OAS. Although it is not legally binding, the Charter reflects the consensual norms of the  promotion and protection of democracy through multilateral diplomatic mechanisms. Nevertheless, some scholars have pointed out the mixed record that the OAS holds in defending democracy in practice.[51] The OAS has increasingly been criticized for its “firefighter approach” because it is not effective in preventing coups, constitutional crises, and democratic erosion, but instead only reacts when large disasters happen. Some argue this is because the OAS has low levels of permeability to or is poorly penetrated by third parties,[52] like NGOs, while others might point out the non-binding nature of the IADC[53] or the role of the United States in the organization.[54]

It must be recognized, however, that the OAS does act clearly and assertively in certain circumstances. Boniface has shown that in cases of coups and autogolpes, the OAS tends to intervene more.[55] In these cases, the Organization tends to use its strongest mechanisms and tools to deter domestic democratic violators and try to influence a democratic transition outcome.[56] However, in cases of democratic erosion, the OAS tends to respond – possibly – in “extenuating circumstances,” with “moderate” measures, but it acts most likely with “weak” responses.[57] Until 2016, the OAS maintained higher levels of moderation in its responses to the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan situation, and it was not until 2017 and 2018, respectively, that diplomatic pressure increased.

In the two cases of democratic weakening and authoritarian backsliding I have evaluated, there is a key factor that has been present and appears to explain when and why the OAS has responded to these cases. This factor is human rights violations, which appears to be necessary for the OAS to judge that a country has violated the democratic principles that the OAS strives to protect.  Before this, it appeared as if “human rights and democracy often appear disconnected on the inter-American agenda.”[58] However, recent developments in Venezuela and Nicaragua show that gross human rights violations were necessary but not enough to gather a majority of members to take collective action for the promotion and protection of democracy and human rights.

There are three periods (2014, 2017, and 2018) where this inference can be observed. In 2014, a series of events triggered pro-democracy protests by the opposition in Venezuela, demanding the cessation of authoritarian repression. Maduro responded violently, with over 60 people dead, and even more wounded, as well as numerous becoming political prisoners. The government and opposition agreed to negotiate in April 2014, but no favorable agreement came out of those negotiations. In addition to Arceneaux & Pion-Berlin and Smith[59], I argue that gross and massive human rights violations implicate “high severity” crises in undemocratic countries.

Additionally, PC meetings to consider the situation in a country, whether they result in declarations or resolutions, should be carefully studied. If there is a declaration or resolution from the PC, the wording becomes important to code the response as “weak” or “moderate.” Declarations and resolutions that condemn undemocratic practices and/or human rights violations by incumbents become “moderate” responses. “Weak” responses would entail the “exhortation” to the parties (usually government and opposition) to agree to negotiations and constitutional ways out of crises.

During the 2014 protests in Venezuela, the representative from Panama to the PC tried to give a voice in the council to an opposition member of the National Assembly of Venezuela regarding the situation in that country. However, the representative from Venezuela hijacked the session, gathered support for a closed meeting, and finally passed an extremely weak PC declaration.[60] It appears that human rights violations were sufficient for a meeting of the PC around the Venezuelan situation, but it was not enough to pass any important or moderate resolution. Some factors can be considered: first, the ideological majority within the OAS was in favor of Venezuela, which opposed any moderate or vigorous resolution. Smith shows how executive privilege and the “Left bloc” within the OAS help explain how Venezuela blocked any attempt of  meaningful measures against its current regime.[61] Also, following Arceneaux and Pion-Berlin, the “balance of power”[62] was in favor of the Maduro regime, as his ALBA coalition favored Caribbean support and exerted influence over these countries. Also, the polarization of the situation in Venezuela and calls for negotiations from both sides diminished any serious probability of passing an even moderate response against the Maduro regime. Thus, human rights violations were necessary, but not sufficient, for OAS members to consider the situation in a member state (Venezuela 2014) and take action (e.g., a PC resolution).

For the first time, the OAS PC passed a resolution in 2017 that criticized and condemned the undemocratic behavior of the Maduro government in Venezuela and contextualize the situation as an “unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order.”[63] This time, a more moderate response was taken. In 2017, a new wave of pro-democracy protests took place, to which the Maduro regime responded through hostile repression, leaving more than 140 civilians dead. Again, human rights abuses seemed to act as a triggering factor for OAS response, but the response differed in intensity from 2014. First, the correlation of political ideologies shifted towards a majority of governments that came from the right, which were keener to denounce Maduro’s autocratic actions. Second, the economic deterioration in Venezuela decreased the country’s diplomatic influence under ALBA benefits to other states, and thus many countries felt less dependent on  Maduro. Third, negotiations were still seen as a mechanism for a solution, but this time they were not anymore the only mechanism being considered.

Response towards Nicaragua experienced a similar trajectory. Just as in Venezuela, the OAS took very weak to no responses to its democratic erosion. Also similar to Venezuela, just after the massive human rights violations that occurred in April 2018, the OAS convened and approved a moderate resolution in July.[64] An even stronger, yet still in a moderate range, resolution was passed in August,[65] which created a “Working Group” to “search for peaceful and sustainable solutions to the evolving situation in Nicaragua, including consultations with the Government of Nicaragua.” In considering the situation of Nicaragua, it seems the massive human rights violations by the Nicaraguan government were necessary to trigger an OAS response that consider the situation in Nicaragua, which opposes any single resolution over its country based on the principle of non-intervention.

Why did OAS members intervene in Nicaragua in July 2018? As mentioned, by 2017, action had already been taken against Maduro. By that time, the ALBA coalition within the OAS  had shrunk and lost influence; countries within ALBA were no longer as dependent on Venezuelan oil; and in 2017, the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, had already taken steps towards negotiations for political reform with the government and opposition groups in Nicaragua. However, these actions alone were not enough to trigger an OAS collective response. It was after  the April 2018 protests and human rights violations by the Nicaraguan government that the  OAS convened in the PC to pass resolutions put pressure on Ortega’s regime. Thus, as in Venezuela, it seems that grotesque human rights violations were the spark that triggered OAS response in the form of “moderate” PC resolutions.

Diplomatic responses have been increasing since then. In the case of Venezuela, the OAS has progressively exercised pressure since 2017. A Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs was convened in May 2017 to consider the situation of Venezuela, while reports by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights have also called the attention of the OAS to human rights violations.[66] The General Assembly, the maximum organ of the OAS, has passed strong resolutions against the Maduro regime (2018, 2019)[67] and the Ortega regime (2019).[68] This line of action will likely continue due to the human rights violations that occurred in 2017 in Venezuela and 2018 in Nicaragua. Also, a change in the political ideology of members and declining diplomatic influence of Venezuela’s petrodollars, created the perfect environment that allows the OAS to take collective action to promote and defend democracy and human rights in these countries.

CONCLUSION

The cases of democratic backsliding in Venezuela and Nicaragua are increasingly difficult to deal with in practice, as they follow gradual actions by incumbents, who engage in controlling state institutions, repressing civil and political liberties, and eroding opposition rights. Moreover, the intensification of these practices, the total centralization of power in a single person and/or party, and the employment of repression and human rights abuses transitioned these regimes to more hegemonic authoritarian ones.

The OAS, as an international organization, contains within itself different mechanisms that allow member states and/or the internal bureaucracy of the organization to use these mechanisms. It has been shown that the OAS is an organization “doing an imperfect and inconsistent job of promoting a rather limited notion of representative democracy,”[69] and in cases of democratic erosion, including violations of constitutional and electoral procedures, it has had very weak responses.[70] The governing style of Chávez, Maduro, and Ortega has denigrated representative democracy and checks and balances, and even when the OAS has made efforts to “legalize” instruments for the promotion of democracy, the organization suffers from vague conceptualization of and response to democratic crises and favors reactionary rather than preventative responses.[71] Hence, it is not surprising that the OAS did not take early and proactive action in Venezuela and Nicaragua during their backslide into authoritarianism.

I have argued that in these particular “emblematic” cases, the OAS was able to collectively intervene in a more consistent, continuous, and proactive manner after gross human rights abuses occurred in these countries. This factor was necessary, but not sufficient. In 2014, after state officials and Chavista gangs immersed in violent actions in protests, the OAS did not take collective action against the incumbent. Instead, a PC declaration was enough to move on and focus efforts in negotiations and mediations. The cohesion of the “Left bloc” within the OAS plus the ALBA member states, as well as the mixed interpretation of public opinion in OAS intervention, played a role in blocking any resolution of condemnation against these acts, let alone authoritarian backsliding. However, in Venezuela (2017) and Nicaragua (2018), massive human rights violations were followed by a quick response by the OAS with PC resolutions and increasing pressure and actions. Different from 2014 in Venezuela, the “Left bloc” had ceded space to right wing or centrist governments who were less prone to feel compelled to support the Venezuelan and Ortega regime. Furthermore, ALBA benefits had increasingly decreased, so many of its members, especially Caribbean countries, felt less dependent on Venezuelan benefits and either abstained or voted in favor of pressuring/condemning authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua. In both countries, negotiations had failed, much in part due to incumbent intransigency to cede any political space for opposition parties.

My research contains an interesting but awkward focus that should be studied more in depth. If crude human rights abuses seem to be a trigger for OAS collective action, which leads to demand a cease of these abuses and a return to democratic rule, as moderate and mild these responses might be, they appear to be consistent. Other countries experiencing democratic backsliding, plus OAS myopic view, would give incentives for opposition and pro-democracy groups to push the government to act violently and demand further OAS action. Two cases are particularly worth studying: Honduras and Bolivia. The incumbents in both countries, Juan Orlando Hernández (Honduras) and Evo Morales (Bolivia), were unconstitutionally and suspiciously allowed to run for another term, even though it was not lawful (Similar to the case of Ortega). After their elections in Honduras (2017) and Bolivia (2019), the opposition criticized the electoral process and called it a fraud. The opposition quickly protested the results but encountered violence from the government forces. In Honduras, the Secretary General Almagro first proposed the elections be repeated, but a few months later expressed its willingness to work with Hernández. In Bolivia, it remains to be seen whether a complete audit will solve a crisis that was inevitable and to which both Almagro and OAS member states have failed to address. The role of the Secretary General has increasingly changed during Almagro’s term, receiving praising for his critical posture and active promotion/protection of democracy, while also facing criticism for “exceeding his mandates” and seeking his personal agenda and not that of the member states.

This research shows that normatively and in principle, the OAS remains weak and ineffective in dealing with democratic backsliding. However, human rights abuses seem necessary to trigger OAS actions but not sufficient. Other factors, like ideology, economic dependency and interests, and failure of negotiations and mediations, must be present in this context to take several moderate to strong measures in dealing with the authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

ANNEX 1

The definitions on participation, competition, and (horizontal) accountability are taken from Diamond and Morlino (2004):

Participation: “No regime can be a democracy unless it grants all of its adult citizens formal rights of political participation, including the franchise. But a good democracy must ensure that all citizens are in fact able to make use of these formal rights to influence the decision-making process: to vote, to organize, to assemble, to protest, and to lobby for their interests. With regard to participation, democratic quality is high when we in fact observe extensive citizen participation not only through voting but in the life of political parties and civil society organizations, in the discussion of public policy issues, in communicating with and demanding accountability from elected representatives, in monitoring official conduct, and in direct engagement with public issues at the local level. Participation in these respects is intimately related to political equality. Even if everyone’s formal rights of participation are upheld, inequalities in political resources can make it harder for lower-status individuals to exercise those rights. Thus, a fundamental condition for widespread participation in a good democracy is broad diffusion of basic education and literacy, and with it a modicum of knowledge about government and public affairs. Important again, as a supporting condition, is the political culture, which should value participation and the equal worth and dignity of all citizens. The latter implies as well tolerance of political and social differences, and thus acceptance by groups and individuals that others (including weaker parties and one’s adversaries) also have equal rights under law.”

(Diamond and Morlino, 2004: 22-23).

Competition: “In order to be a democracy at all, a political system must have regular, free, and fair electoral competition between different political parties. But democracies vary in their degree of competitiveness—in the openness of access to the electoral arena by new political forces, in the ease with which incumbents can be defeated, and in the equality of access for competing political parties to the mass media and campaign funding. Depending on the type of electoral system, democracies may allow for more or less decisive electoral alternation as well. Here we confront a trade-off within the overall goal of competition. Electoral systems based on proportional representation (PR) score well on one element of competitiveness—ease of access to the electoral arena and parliament on the part of multiple political parties—but at the expense of another element of competitiveness, namely the ease of alternation of power (or the efficiency of the electoral process), since the presence of multiple parties with relatively defined shares of the vote tends to produce a succession of coalition governments with considerable continuity in party composition over time. One condition for vigorous competition is the legal and constitutional order. In contemporary democracies, funding for parties and campaigns is so vital for electoral viability that newer parties and candidates cannot seriously compete without some fair minimum in this regard. While there is considerable skepticism about the efficacy of laws that limit campaign spending—in part because of how easily circumvented they are in new and old democracies alike—some floor of public funding for significant parties and robust requirements for the full and rapid reporting of all contributions to parties and campaigns do seem to promote greater electoral fairness and competitiveness. In first-past-the-post systems, the means by which electoral districts are drawn also heavily shape competitiveness. Where partisan bodies are able to draw electoral districts to their own advantage (as in the United States), they are likely to do so in ways that will promote partisan and incumbency advantage. Of course, electoral competitiveness also depends on fairness in access to the mass media, pluralism in media ownership (and viewpoints), some dispersion of economic resources in society, and the enforcement of political rights by an independent judiciary. There is also an important linkage with horizontal accountability, because the single most important institutional guarantee of freedom and fairness (and hence competitiveness) in elections is an independent and authoritative electoral commission.”

(Diamond and Morlino, 2004: 24-25).

Horizontal Accountability: Democratic quality—including the processes through which vertical accountability operates—also requires that officeholders must either behave lawfully and properly or answer for the contrary not only to voters, but also to other officials and state institutions that possess the expertise and legal authority needed for such a monitory role. Since one official or arm of government is answering to another in a roughly lateral way rather than as part of a regular “command-and-obedience” relationship, this is called horizontal accountability. Examples of horizontal-accountability institutions could include the legislative opposition, specific investigative committees formed by the legislature, the courts, audit agencies, a countercorruption commission, a central bank, an independent electoral administration, a state ombudsman, or various other bodies whose mission is to scrutinize and limit the power of those who govern.9 The vitality of horizontal accountability hinges most of all on a legal system that provides for the exertion of checks and balances by other public entities that are independent of the government, and not competing as an alternative to it. But the agencies of horizontal accountability constitute a system of their own, and if this system is to work it must have institutional capacity, training, and leadership that are at once capable, vigorous, and responsible. Like the law itself, the agencies of horizontal accountability can be used as a weapon against political opponents, but only at the possible cost of undermining the credibility enjoyed by the entire institutional network.

(Diamond and Morlino, 2004: 25-26).


[1] Andrew F. Cooper, “The Making of the Inter-American Democratic Charter: A Case of Complex Multilateralism,” International Studies Perspectives 5, no. 1(2004): 92-113.

[2] See Thomas Legler, Sharon F. Lean,  and Dexter S. Boniface, Promoting Democracy in the Americas (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); Rubén M. Perina, The Organization of American States as the Advocate and Guardian of Democracy (Lanham: University Press of America, 2015); Craig Arceneaux and David Pion-Berlin, “Issues, Threats, and Institutions: Explaining OAS Responses to Democratic Dilemmas in Latin America,” Latin American Politics and Society 49, no. 2 (2007).

[3] See Annex 1.

[4] David Waldner and Ellen Lust, “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding,” Annual Review of Political Science 21, (2018): 95. https://doir.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.

[5] Waldner and Lust, “Unwelcome Change,” 108-109.

[6] Peter H. Smith and Cameron J. Sells, Democracy in Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 11.

[7] Kurt Weyland, “Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift: The Threat from the Populist Left,” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 3 (2013): 17.

[8] Takis S. Pappas, “Populists in Power,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 2 (2019): 73; Weyland, “Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift,” 21.

[9] Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2019), 6.

[10] For a definition of “borderline democracies,” see Andreas Schedler, The Politics of Uncertainty: Sustaining and Subverting Electoral Authoritarian Regimes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 79-80.

[11] Pappas, “Populists in Power, 73; Weyland, “Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift,” 21.

[12] Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 80-81.

[13] Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, “Venezuela: Crowding Out the Opposition,” Journal of Democracy 18, no. 2 (2007): 109.

[14] Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chávez (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2015), 32.

[15] Schedler, The Politics of Uncertainty, 79-80.

[16] Pappas, “Populists in Power,” 70-71.

[17] Jana Morgan, “Deterioration and Polarization of Party Politics in Venezuela,” in Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse, ed. Scott Mainwaring (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 322.

[18] Corrales and Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics, 37.

[19] Larry Diamond and Leonardo Morlino, “The Quality of Democracy: An Overview,” Journal of Democracy, 15, no. 4 (2004): 24-25.

[20] For a review on electoral systems and authoritarian regimes, see Jennifer Gandhi, “Authoritarian Elections and Regime Change,” in Comparing Democracies: Elections and Voting in a Changing World, ed. Lawrence LeDuc, Richard G. Niemi, and Pippa Norris (London: SAGE, 2014).

[21] Consejo Nacional Electoral, “Divulgación Elecciones Parlamentarias – 26 de septiembre de 2010,” CNE. http://www.cne.gob.ve/divulgacion_parlamentarias_2010/index.php?e=00&m=00&p=00&c=00&t=00&ca=00&v=02 (accessed January 7, 2020).

[22] Weyland, “Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift,” 18.

[23] Thomas Legler, “Venezuela 2002-2004: The Chávez Challenge,” in Promoting Democracy in the Americas, ed. Thomas Legler, Sharon F. Lean, and Dexter S. Boniface (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 222.

[24] Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 13.

[25] Morgan, “Deterioration and Polarization,” 322.

[26] Pappas, “Populists in Power,” 76.

[27] Corrales and Penfold, Dragon in the Tropics, 200-202.

[28] For more detail, see the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Democratic Institutions, the Rule of Law and Human Rights in Venezuela: Country Report. OAS Official Records, 2017.

[29] Benigno Alarcón, Ángel E. Álvarez, and Manuel Hidalgo, “Latin America’s New Turbulence: Can Democracy Win in Venezuela?” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 2 (2016): 24.

[30] Eugenio Martínez, “Sobre la ilegalización de partidos en Venezuela,” Prodavinci, Accessed October 30, 2019, https://prodavinci.com/sobre-la-ilegalizacion-de-partidos-en-venezuela/.

[31] Richard L. Millet, “Nicaragua: An Uncertain Future,” in Latin American Politics and Development, ed. Harvey F. Kline, Christine J. Wade, and Howard J. Wiarda (New York: Westview Press, 2018), 386.

[32] Shelley A. McConnell, “The 2011 presidential and legislative elections in Nicaragua,” Electoral Studies 34 (2014): 300.

[33] Kai M. Thaler, “Nicaragua: A Return to Caudillismo,” Journal of Democracy 28, no. 2 (2017): 158.

[34] Forrest D. Colburn and Arturo S. Cruz, “Personalism and Populism in Nicaragua,” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 2 (2012): 116; Leslie E. Anderson and Lawrence C. Dodd, “Nicaragua: Progress Amid Regress?” Journal of Democracy 20, no. 3 (2009): 156.

[35] Thaler, “Nicaragua,” 159.

[36] Carlos Salinas, “El fraude electoral divide a Nicaragua,” El País, November 14, 2008. https://elpais.com/diario/2008/11/14/internacional/1226617201_850215.html.

[37] Anderson and Dodd, “Nicaragua,” 159-161.

[38] Thaler, “Nicaragua,” 159.

[39] Colburn and Cruz, “Personalism and Populism,” 103.

[40] McConnell, “The 2011 presidential and legislative elections,” 300.

[41] Thaler, “Nicaragua,” 162-163.

[42] McConnell, “The 2011 presidential and legislative elections,” 301.

[43] See Larry Diamond, In Search of Democracy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 84-87.

[44] Thaler, “Nicaragua,” 159.

[45] See Schedler, The Politics of Uncertainty, 91-92 for actions of “subversion;” Thaler, “Nicaragua,” 161.

[46] Thaler, “Nicaragua,” 158.

[47] Thaler, “Nicaragua,” 156.

[48] Arturo Cruz, “How to Understand the Nicaraguan Crisis,” Wilson Center Latin American Program, Accessed October 30, 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/nicaragua_crisis-arturo_cruz_final.pdf.

[49] Cruz, “How to Understand,” 9.

[50] See Diamond, In Search of Democracy; Perina, The Organization of American States as the Advocate and Guardian of Democracy; Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, “Cross-Currents in Latin America,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 1 (2015); Steven Levitsky, “Latin America’s Shifting Politics: Democratic Surivival and Weakness,” Journal of Democracy 29, no. 4 (2018).

[51] See, for example, Arceneaux and Pion-Berlin, “Issues, Threats, and Institutions;” Dexter S. Boniface, “The OAS’s Mixed Record,” in Promoting Democracy in the Americas, ed. Thomas Legler, Sharon F. Lean, and Dexter S. Boniface (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 40-62; Jennifer McCoy, “Challenges for the Collective Defense of Democracy on the Tenth Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” Latin American Policy 3, no. 1 (2012). 

[52] Darren Hawkins, “Protecting Democracy in Europe and the Americas,” International Organization 62 (2008).

[53] See, for instance, Perina, The Organization of American States as the Advocate and Guardian of Democracy, 87.

[54] Carolyn M. Shaw, “Limits to Hegemonic Influence in the Organization of American States,” Latin American Politics and Society 45, no. 3 (2008).

[55] Boniface, “The OAS’s Mixed Record,” 54-58.

[56] Arceneaux and Pion-Berlin, “Issues, Threats, and Institutions.”

[57] Arceneaux and Pion-Berlin, “Issues, Threats, and Institutions,” 12.

[58] Andrew F. Cooper and Jean-Phillipe Thérein, “The Inter-American Regime of Citizenship: Bridging the Institutional Gap between Democracy and Human Rights,” Third World Quarterly 25, no. 4 (2004): 732.

[59] See Arceneaux and Pion-Berlin, “Issues, Threats, and Institutions;” Betsy L. Smith, “Killing Democracy Softly: Executive Privilege and the Defense of Democracy in the Americas,” Latin American Policy 9, no. 2 (2018).

[60] CP/DEC. 51 (1957/14).

[61] Smith, “Killing Democracy Softly,” 220; 228.

[62] Arceneaux and Pion-Berlin, “Issues, Threats, and Institutions,” 11.

[63] CP/RES. 1078 (2108/17).

[64] CP/RES. 1108 (2172/18)

[65] CP/RES. 1109 (2175/18)

[66] See Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Democratic Institutions, the Rule of Law and Human Rights in Venezuela; Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Gross Human Rights Violations in the Context of Social Protests in Nicaragua, OAS Official Records, 2018.

[67] 2018 Resolution: AG/RES. 2929 (XLVIII-O/18); 2019 Resolution: AG/RES. 2944 (XLIX-O/19).

[68] AG/RES. 2943 (XLIX-O/19).

[69] Boniface, “The OAS’s Mixed Record, 58.

[70] See Arceneaux and Pion-Berlin, “Issues, Threats, and Institutions;” Smith, “Killing Democracy Softly.”

[71] McCoy, “Transnational Response to Democratic Crisis in the Americas, 1990 – 2005,” in Promoting Democracy in the Americas, ed. Thomas Legler, Sharon F. Lean, and Dexter S. Boniface (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 280-284.