This EDP Wire contribution briefly summarizes Andrea Ribeiro Hoffmann’s article “Negotiating normative premises in democracy promotion: Venezuela and the Inter-American Democratic Charter” of the recent Democratization special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion. Issues, parameters and consequences“, edited by EDP network members Annika E. Poppe, Julia Leininger and Jonas Wolff. With the help of the generous support of the Leibniz Association, the entire special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion: Issues, parameters and consequences” is available online as open access. The summary was prepared by Nora Berger-Kern.
Since the late 1990s, some Latin American governments pursued alternative approaches to the model of representative democracy, emphasizing direct participation as well as social, economic and collective rights, and contesting the models and practices of traditional external promotors. This article focuses on the case of Venezuela, which during the governments of former President Hugo Chávez (1999–2013) and his successor Nicolás Maduro, pursued a so-called “participatory and protagonist” model of democracy which not only lead to a profound transformation of the political regime but to resistance to the external promotion of representative democracy as well. It furthermore discusses the multilateral debates that have emerged at the level of the OAS, more specifically the negotiations that led to the adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IADC) in September 2001.
Democracy and democratization in Venezuela
The economic crisis of the 1980s, and the neoliberal reforms by President Carlos Andrés Pérez provoked strong resistance in Venezuela, leading to the victory of Chávez in 1998. A key aspect of his project was the re-conceptualization and transformation of democracy, with an emphasis on direct participation of citizens and on social and economic rights. As Chávez’s project began to be implemented, however, internal and external opposition became more assertive, culminating in a coup against him in 2002. The coup was a turning point for his strategy, leading to a radicalization of both his domestic reform agenda and his attitude towards countries such as the US, which he regarded as having supported the coup. Chávez’s project included not only the reformulation of democracy but the contestation of neoliberalism as a model of development and his second term radicalized the project, establishing the consolidation of the transition to “twenty-first Century Socialism” as a main priority. The relation between representative and participatory democracy became increasingly challenging.
Chávez`s death in 2013 and the election of Nicolás Maduro led to a new context, which was seized upon by the opposition. The continued overreliance on oil revenues, fragmentation of the opposition, and repression by the government, among other factors, led to unprecedented instability. A series of events in the last years – such as the annulment (and subsequent reversal) of the powers of the National Assembly by the Supreme Court or the re-election of Maduro in 2018 – led to an escalation. It has become increasingly difficult to see Venezuela as representing a competing model of democracy; but this was certainly different at the beginning of the century, when Venezuela’s questioning of the conception of representative democracy was the first explicit challenge to the regional normative framework of democracy protection and promotion that had taken shape during the 1990s.
The concept of democracy in the multilateral norms of democracy protection and promotion
Unlike other organizations, the OAS includes a definition of democracy in all its collective commitments to protect and promote it, namely, representative democracy. The most important documents referring to democracy are: 1) the founding Charter of Bogota (1948), 2) Resolution 1080 (1991), 3) the Washington Protocol (1992), and 4) the IADC (2001). Though some states remained skeptical on the collective defence of democracy, for a long time, Venezuela remained an enthusiastic supporter of the idea.
As political crises not defined by traditional military coups became more common in the region in the 1990s, OAS member states continued discussing the conditions under which democratic conditionality should be invoked. In this context, proposals for a new commitment emerged, which ultimately led to the negotiations of the IADC.
Negotiating the concept of democracy
At the Quebec Summit in April 2001, OAS member states agreed with the general idea of the Democratic Charter, but there was no consensus on the degree of intrusiveness of the new instrument and of the definition of democratic criteria: The main concerns were voiced by Venezuela, articulating a normative position that competed with the liberal mainstream view.
With the lack of a consensual text, a Working Group was established and charged with putting together a final text for the special session of the General Assembly in September 2001. The Venezuelan government submitted “Venezuela’s proposals regarding the draft Inter-American Charter”, explicitly demanding the inclusion of “participatory democracy” in the Charter’s definition of democracy. After more than 15 drafts, the Permanent Council was finally able to approve a final draft on 6 September, which was unanimously approved by the 34 member states on September 11, 2001. In the end, Venezuela was not able to change the wording or prevent the Democratic Charter from being adopted, as in its final wording, the Charter defines representative democracy as the common and binding norm to which all OAS member states commit themselves. Nevertheless, some references to participation were included.
Making sense of the negotiations
The regional debate about the concept of democracy and the active role played by Venezuela in the Charter negotiations challenged representative democracy as the “only game in town”. It also led to contestation of external democracy promotion, which had become an established practice in the region since the early 1990s. Despite the inclusion of the term “participation” in some passages and references to the connection between democracy and development as well as to the structural conditions of democracy, ultimately the Charter clearly confirms and consolidates representative democracy as the common normative reference to which all member states are committed and which guides regional efforts at democracy promotion.
In addition to the actor-level domestic political changes in Venezuela, specific features of the negotiation process help clarify why Venezuela ended up accepting a compromise that was quite distant from its demands. These features included: 1) the increased participation of NGOs, 2) the speed of the negotiations set by the Peruvian-Canadian tandem leadership, and 3) the fact that it was not a US-led initiative, but one initiated by a recently democratized fellow South American government. Besides, Venezuela’s position in the field of international democracy promotion at the global and regional contexts in the early 2000s was a key factor as well, as it favoured its willingness to compromise and the outcome of the negotiations. By 2010, that position had changed and recently even more dramatically, when President Maduro initiated a process to withdraw from the OAS permanently due to its “intent to overthrow my government” and “aim of destroying the Bolivarian model”.
As this article has shown, in the early 2000s a substantive discussion about the concept of democracy emerged during the negotiations for the IADC. The Venezuelan government contested key normative premises that the OAS had hitherto largely taken for granted and provoked an open debate about the concept of democracy. The controversy over the Charter thus represents a rare case of multilateral negotiations on competing conceptions of democracy.
The current wave of democratic instability not only in Venezuela but worldwide is a reminder that if the concept of democracy, and the practices of democracy protection and promotion are not to become useless, they must be permanently contested and discussed. However, for this to happen, a more genuine process of arguing is needed than the half-hearted exchange of positions that characterized the 2001 negotiations over the IADC