19. February 2019 | EDP Wire | Jonas Wolff

Democracy Promotion in the Americas

This Wire is part of our EDP Wire Series featuring the contributions of our joint EDP policy paper. Once a week, you are invited to read a new article on one of the key issues that democracy promotion is currently faced with. In the following weeks, we will focus on the question of where the formerly major democracy promoters as well as the different world regions stand with regard to democracy promotion activities and (non-)successes. In this last piece of our EDP Wire Series, Jonas discusses the problems of the regional system of democracy promotion in the Americas. He argues that the region has one of the most advanced regimes of democracy and human rights protection world-wide, but that there are no regional actors that have sufficient credibility, capacity and political will to respond to the serious challenges to, and in part open crises of, democracy that can be observed in the region.

Status quo

The regional system of democracy promotion in the Americas is in serious trouble. Although the Western Hemisphere, still, consists almost entirely of democratic regimes and has one of the most advanced regimes of democracy and human rights protection world-wide, established institutions and practices are currently largely paralyzed. At the moment there are no regional actors – neither the former US hegemon, nor regional organizations or individual Latin American states – that have sufficient credibility, capacity and political will to respond to the serious challenges to, and in part open crises of, democracy that can be observed in the region. This paralysis is due to several factors, but a key problem is that, in today’s Americas, there is open disagreement about (1) what democracy actually means, (2) which activities of external democracy promotion are normatively appropriate and which not, and (3) who is entitled to engage in such activities to begin with.

The current situation reflects a process of normative disintegration and fragmentation which signals a clear turning away from the trajectory on which the region embarked in 1990. Enabled by the almost region-wide establishment of democratic regimes and the end of the Cold War, the 1990s saw an emerging consensus that included a commitment to representative, liberal democracy as well as general agreement on the importance and legitimacy of external democracy promotion. At the level of the Organization of American States (OAS), this was reflected in a continuous strengthening of regional norms and instruments that provided for the protection and promotion of democracy in member states. This process of norm strengthening started in 1991 with the “Santiago Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American System” and Resolution 1080 on “Representative Democracy,” and culminated in 2001 in the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.[1] These institutional developments were accompanied by an expanding – if far from coherent and comprehensive – practice of collective responses to threats to democracy in the region. Even if far from coherent and comprehensive, such responses contributed to preventing or reversing breaches of the constitutional order in quite a few cases.[2] In addition, bilateral policies of democracy promotion expanded significantly – most importantly, on the part of the United States – and were generally welcomed, or at least accepted, by Latin American governments. While the OAS largely focused on the protection of democracy against outright domestic threats, US democracy promotion has been more actively engaged in shaping the very characteristics of democracy in the region. Additional democracy promoters in the region include the EU and individual European member states such as Germany or Spain. By and large, however, the role of these extra-regional actors is relatively minor in terms of both the economic resources they invest and the political leverage they can apply.


The new struggle over democracy (promotion) that has characterized inter-American relations since the turn of the century has several dimensions and sources.[3] First, with the election of a series of more of less leftist presidents across the region, several governments – including, most notably, in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador – started to promote conceptions of democracy that deliberately challenge the liberal model of democracy. More specifically, in the OAS, the regional consensus on “representative democracy” was now explicitly questioned in the name of “participatory” and “social/ist” notions of democracy. These same governments also adopted a particularly critical stance vis-à-vis US democracy promotion, which they regarded as neo-imperialist meddling aiming at the destabilization of leftist governments. Second, and related, the US government under President George W. Bush did its best to delegitimize democracy promotion, most notably by equating democracy promotion with military regime change (as in the case of the Iraq War) and by offering at least tacit support to the failed 2002 coup against Venezuela’s then president Hugo Chávez.

As a consequence, debates within the OAS have been characterized by severe normative disagreements, which are intimately connected with conflicts of power and interest.[4] This has contributed to the failure to find common inter-American responses to open threats to democracy in the region. In the case of the failed coup in Venezuela in 2002, a fairly accommodating US response undermined the joint and swift Latin American condemnation of Chávez’s removal. Responding to the 2009 coup in Honduras, the OAS initially unequivocally rejected the forced deposition of elected President Zelaya; but the longer the post-coup government remained in power, the more governments – including most prominently the US – veered away from this position. In other cases, in which elected presidents were removed in contested impeachment proceedings, such as in Paraguay (2012) and Brazil (2016), governments could not agree on whether what had happened meant a rupture of the constitutional order or not and, consequently, there was no common position or decision taken at the regional level. The same holds true for the gradual erosion of democracy in Venezuela. In the latter case, the OAS has continued to be paralyzed by the confrontation between Venezuela’s allies in the region, which systematically downplay the increasingly undeniable undermining of core democratic norms and institutions by the Maduro government on the one hand and the US government and its allies, in this case including OAS Secretary-General Almagro, which had taken an outright partisan approach well before Maduro openly undermined Venezuela’s democratic institutions, and has thus only contributed to further escalating the Venezuelan crisis. This is not to say that the OAS is entirely paralyzed when it comes to democracy-related activities. When it comes to electoral observation missions, the OAS is in fact still serving a useful purpose – such as in the cases of contested elections in Ecuador and Honduras (both in 2017). In the latter case, however, individual states – and, once again, most notably the US – have undermined the OAS demand for a rerun election by recognizing the re-election of president Juan Orlando Hernández.

In addition to ideological differences and related normative disagreements that obstruct collective regional responses to political crises, these very crises themselves also increasingly undermine international efforts at promoting and protecting democracy in the Americas. In the past, US democracy promotion was also contested, not least because of the history of US interference in the region that rarely followed pro-democracy norms. But with President Trump it is also the very state of democracy in the US itself that is under serious doubt, which has serious negative effects on the image of liberal democracy. This combines with a lack of political will when it comes to democracy promotion under the Trump administration, even if at the operational level many programs continue (see Poppe in this report).

During the years of the George W. Bush administration, the Latin American response to the loss of credibility on the part of the US was a focus on intra-Latin American relations. This was, for instance, reflected in the creation of regional organizations that competed with the OAS and were deliberately set up by Latin American states without US participation. The most important ones include the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), established in 2008, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), founded in 2011. CELAC and UNASUR, in fact, established their own democracy clauses. And while CELAC never managed to become more than a forum for intra- and inter-regional dialogue, UNASUR initially developed an interesting dynamic – and, indeed, played a constructive role in a few domestic political crises (such as, for instance, in Bolivia in 2008). In addition, in the first decade of the new century, Brazil under the government of President Lula became an increasingly active regional power in terms of both foreign policy and development cooperation[5] that acted as a moderating force in quite a few intra-regional conflicts. With the election of conservative president Mauricio Macri in Argentina (2015) and the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (2016), however, UNASUR is now just as divided and paralyzed as the OAS. And the interim government of Michael Temer has all but abandoned Brazil’s strategic engagement with and in the region. Given the highly problematic impeachment of Rousseff, the Temer government’s poor domestic legitimacy and the massive corruption scandals shaking Brazil, the country currently lacks both the capacity and the credibility to play a leading role in any efforts relating to promoting or protecting democracy in the region. These changes in both Brazil and the US (but also in several other countries in the region) are also reflected in a turning inward of political attention: at least when compared with their predecessors, current governments pay significantly less attention to regional affairs.


There is currently no significant actor – neither a powerful government, nor a plausible alliance of governments, nor a regional organization – that is credible, willing and able to promote and/or protect democracy in the Americas. Polarization-cum-fragmentation significantly undermines the capacity of collective action at the regional level. No simple or immediate solutions to this problem are available. When adjusting democracy promotion strategies to the difficult regional context, the above analysis suggests three overall recommendations:

In terms of actors: as long as official regional institutions are paralyzed when it comes to responses to democratic crises, informal ad hoc coalitions of actors (states and non-state actors, such as elder statespersons) offer a better alternative (such as in the case of the ongoing mediation in the Venezuelan crisis). Within regional organizations, it would be helpful to enable open debates about the diverging views – so that they could at least serve as arenas for intra-regional debates.

When thinking about proper instruments, the focus at the moment should probably be less on promoting democracy in any ambitious sense but rather on conflict management and mediation, on the one hand, and electoral observation, on the other.

Finally, as concerns the thorny issue of norms: given the level of contestation of democratic norms, it might be useful to try to regain some regional consensus by focusing on fundamental basics of democratic rule. The task should not be to agree on what precisely democracy is, but on benchmarks that help identify clear-cut breaches of democratic rule.

These suggestions also apply to extra-regional actors such as the EU and individual European states, which have not been discussed in this chapter but whose democracy promotion policies do play a certain (if limited) role in the region. In general terms, these actors should focus on supporting political settlements both within and between the countries of the region, with a view to strengthening the intra-Latin American capacity to collectively promote and protect democracy.

[1]     For an overview and key data and documents that are referred to here and later in the chapter, see Jorge Heine/Brigitte Weiffen 2015: 21st Century Democracy Promotion in the Americas. Standing Up for the Policy, Abingdon: Routledge.

[2]     See Dexter S. Boniface 2007: The OAS’s Mixed Record, in: Thomas Legler/Sharon F. Lean/Dexter S. Boniface (eds.): Promoting Democracy in the Americas, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 40–62, 46.

[3]     See Jonas Wolff 2018: Democracy, in: Anne Tittor et al. (eds.): The Routledge Handbook to Political Economy and Governance in the Americas, London: Routledge, forthcoming.

[4]     See Andreas E. Feldmann 2015: Divisions at the Heart of Latin American Regional Democracy Efforts, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/RDN_FeldmanN_03132015.pdf; Heine/Weiffen (footnote 69), chapters 4–6.

[5]     Here development cooperation is broadly understood to include Brazilian involvement through state institutions (such as the Brazilian development bank BNDES) and through private Brazilian companies (such as the by now notorious Odebrecht).

« back