BY SUSAN KAUFMAN PURCELL
The recent behavior of the Organization of American States (OAS) regarding Honduras is worthy of a magical realist novel. According to one definition, magical realism is “what happens when a highly detailed realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”
Among the things that are “too strange to believe” is the precipitous classification of events in Honduras as a traditional military coup, despite the fact that the military was asked to intervene by the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court after the incumbent president, Manuel Zelaya, decided to ignore Honduras’ constitution, which forbids reelection, by organizing a “poll” to show that “the people” wanted him to run again. This supposedly would then make it all right for Zelaya not only to ignore the constitution, but to change it. The OAS had sent a team of observers to oversee the “poll,” a strange decision, given that the organization had never before observed a Latin American poll.
Even more surrealistic was the condemnation by the OAS of the overthrow of democracy in Honduras only weeks after the OAS had pushed hard to readmit Cuba, a dictatorship that has not held a presidential election in fifty years. The fact that the OAS had earlier added a “democratic clause” to its charter apparently was not considered relevant to its decision to readmit Cuba. Nor, according to the secretary general of the OAS, was it relevant to the situation in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez has systematically used the democratic rules of the game to destroy Venezuelan democracy.
Why wasn’t the “democratic clause” applicable to Cuba and Venezuela? Because, according to the secretary general, the lack of democracy in those countries was an “internal” issue, and the OAS doesn’t intervene in the internal affairs of member countries. But if democracy or its absence is an “internal” issue, why is the involvement of the Honduran military in the internal affairs of Honduras also not an “internal” issue?
Equally surrealistic was the sight of the leaders of the most non-democratic countries in the hemisphere -- Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua -- calling for the return of the democratically-elected president of Honduras.
Although there is undoubtedly more than one explanation for this strange series of events, at the heart of the matter is the determination of the OAS and its members not to allow history to repeat itself. Specifically, the region does not want to return to its still fairly recent sorry past of constant alternations between democratic governments and military regimes.
Unfortunately, however, by refusing to consider the reasons for, and the nature of, military intervention in a particular country, the OAS and its members are fighting the last battle -- not the present one. In the past, the military often intervened in the absence of undemocratic behavior on the part of the elected government. Although there usually were groups in the civilian population -- often from the middle class -- that supported the coups or even asked the military to intervene, in most cases the presidents deposed by the military had not destroyed the country’s democratic political institutions in order to concentrate power in their own hands.
Today, in contrast, the main threat to democracy in Latin America is not the military but rather, charismatic, authoritarian demagogues who use modern means of communication for two undemocratic purposes. One is to mobilize “the people” to overthrow democratically-elected leaders (such as the “civilian coups” that forced Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in Bolivia from office). The other is to provide a pseudo-legitimacy for democratically-elected authoritarians (such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia) to systematically dismantle their country’s democratic institutions.
There are several conclusions that can be drawn from these changes in the nature of today’s threats to Latin American democracy. The first is that it is necessary to challenge undemocratic and unconstitutional behavior before things get so bad that democratic institutions need the military’s help to avoid being destroyed by elected presidents acting illegally. This was not done in the Honduran case. Nor was it done in the Venezuelan case, where the country’s democratic institutions were destroyed and the military was purged.
Second, given the fragmentation in Latin America between countries governed by elected democrats and those governed by elected authoritarians, the challenge to democracy in the region is probably not amenable to a collective response by the OAS, since the elected authoritarians in the OAS will never vote against one of their own. This may mean that the only feasible collective response to these new threats will require that the region’s democracies join together to help and support each other.
Susan Kaufman Purcell, is director of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy and the author of several books on Latin America. Prior to her current position, she was vice president of the Council of the Americas for 16 years and has also served as senior fellow and director of the Latin America Project at the Council of Foreign Relations. This column will appear in the August 2009 issue of AmericaEconomia magazine.