OAS silent in the face of threats to democracy
Posted on Monday, 05.27.13
OAS silent in the face of threats to democracy
BY CARL GERSHMAN
When the National Endowment for Democracy was created 30 years ago, the
third wave of democratization was beginning to crest in Latin America.
With the fall of Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay and the restoration of
democracy in Chile in 1989, and with Violeta Chamorro’s victory over the
Sandinista’s the following year, all the countries of the region, with
the exception of Cuba, were either democratic or in the process of
making the transition to democracy.
It was a period of democratic confidence and enthusiasm. In 1991, the
Oorganization of American States adopted the Santiago Declaration,
pledging concerted action to restore democracy in the event of a coup. A
decade later the organization adopted the more comprehensive Democratic
Charter of the Americas, which pledged also to act against what it
called “the alteration” of democracy, by which it meant the steady
undermining of democracy by an elected autocratic government.
But, these pledges have not been fulfilled. With the notable exception
of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the OAS system has
largely stood by passively while democratic institutions such as a free
press, an independent judiciary, a robust civil society, and free
elections overseen by a neutral election commission have been steadily
subverted by the ruling authorities in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and
Venezuela, as we know, faces a dangerous crisis of political and social
division following last month’s gravely flawed presidential election.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to its credit, has
properly condemned the Venezuelan government for the violence that broke
out in the National Assembly recently, and it has called for an
independent investigation of the post-election killings.
But the OAS, despite calling for a recount of the vote, was represented
at the inauguration of Nicolás Maduro, and Latin American government
officials, with the exception of Peru’s Foreign Minister Rafael
Roncagliolo, have evidently decided to ignore the deepening division in
Venezuela and the urgent need for dialogue and bridge-building.
In Argentina, over one million people took to the streets last month to
protest President Cristina Kirchner’s plans to curtail the media and
take over the courts, but again, the inter-American system has been
The government of Ecuador has all but abolished independent media,
taking over five television channels, four radio stations, two
newspapers and four magazines; and closing 11 other radio stations. The
media monitoring organization Fundamedios reported 173 “acts of
aggression” against journalists in 2012, including one killing and 13
assaults. Yet again, the response has been silence.
And in Cuba, brave democrats like Oswaldo Paya, Laura Pollán, and Harold
Cepero have lost their lives under circumstances that cry out for
independent investigation. Cuban activists, who continue the fight for
democracy, are exposed to great danger and need political and moral
support. But once again, there is silence.
To repeat, I applaud the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human
Rights, which itself is under attack by Ecuador and other opponents of
democratic freedoms. But where is the Organization of American States?
Of what value is the Democratic Charter of the Americas if the OAS and
democratic leaders in the hemisphere stand by passively while the
institutions of democracy are demolished and captured by unaccountable
The picture is by no means all bleak. Democracy has made gains in Chile,
Brazil, Peru and other countries, and significant progress has been made
in the region in reducing poverty and inequality. Through some 150
grants annually, NED supports grassroots groups throughout the region
that are working to advance democracy, often in the most difficult
Moreover, despite the threat to democracy and human rights that I have
noted, the opportunities for democratic progress are actually growing as
the region’s populist autocracies are failing politically and
economically, and with the Cuban dictatorship now entering what I
believe is the final stage of its inexorable decline and inevitable fall.
But we can’t take advantage of these opportunities without a new rebirth
of democratic solidarity. One of the twenty books written by
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s father Enrique Ros, who died just
last month at the age of 89, is entitled Cuba: Mambises Born in Other
Lands. The book details the participation of foreigners in the struggle
for Cuban independence during the last third of the 19th Century – not
just American citizens and Dominicans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Puerto
Ricans, Colombians and Peruvians, but also people from Spain, France,
Italy, Poland and even China.
The book conveys a message of democratic solidarity that is relevant
today, but with one caveat. The challenge today is not liberating people
from foreign oppression. It is supporting their nonviolent struggle for
human rights and democratic citizenship against a controlling and
oppressive state. It is this principle that we now have to proclaim and
To those who say that defending this principle in the case of people
fighting for democratic rights against a home-grown dictatorship is
interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, we should
recall what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Lecture in 1970:
“There are no INTERNAL AFFAIRS left on our crowded Earth! And mankind’s
sole salvation lies in everyone making everything his business.”
If we act upon this principle in solidarity with our brothers and
sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean who are bravely fighting for
freedom, and who need our moral and political support, we shall help
fulfill the promise of a hemisphere united in freedom and democracy. And
if that promise is fulfilled, we will give hope to brave people in other
regions of the world who are engaged in the same struggle for democratic
freedoms and human dignity.
Carl Gershman who has been president of the National Endowment for
Democracy since its 1984 founding. This article is adapted from a speech
he delivered recently upon receiving the Leadership Award from the
Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute.