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A vaccine against authoritarianism

At first glance it might seem as if the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) held in Peru in September 2001 would be forever overshadowed by the infamous terrorist attacks of September 11.

I don’t think that will be the case. In time, I suspect that the meeting, which culminated with the approval of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, will be deemed one of the most important in the history of the OAS.

You may recall that United States Secretary of State Colin Powell had arrived in Lima the night of September 10 to lobby for approval of the Charter, just as the press was beginning to question the appointment of a Gulf War hero as the head of United States foreign policy. But in the morning of the 11th, during the official breakfast for the 34 foreign ministers, news of the awful terrorist attacks broke. The 34 prepared speeches suddenly became pointless and the OAS meeting became a forum to prove that in a crisis, democratic procedures must be enforced and citizens must be ready to defend democracy. Before immediately returning to the United States because of the grave emergency, Powell asked that the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the final draft of which had been slated for discussion, be approved by acclamation. And it was.

The day before had seen an unprecedented occurrence in the history of OAS General Assemblies. The foreign ministers had attended a meeting with representatives of civil society that would ultimately be the only opportunity for the scope and implications of the Charter to be discussed, given what would happen the next day. Previously, over 8,000 civil society organizations had participated in a discussion of the Charter, and their contributions had enriched the text. A Peruvian association called "Asociación Civil Transparencia", which had been key in achieving the transition to democracy in the host country, published and delivered the Charter with all the contributions made by the organizations, assuming ownership of it.

Civil society was right to take a different tack in Lima than its counterparts did in Seattle, Washington, and Venice. For a Latin America in transition, seeking to consolidate its democratic regimes, an instrument that would broaden the definition of democracy to protect it and prevent any deviations from it, is essential to overcome the troublesome legacy of military regimes. The Charter also implies taking into account the new threats that differ from the traditional coup d’état of the past, such as the logic of certain elected autocracies in the late 20th century that claimed that in some cases democracy had to be sacrificed to be defended. The idea was to eliminate the menu of options available to postmodern dictators, which included perpetrating auto-golpes or "self-coups", dissolving legislatures, refusing to recognize an independent judiciary, violating basic rights, committing electoral fraud, establishing military enclaves, restricting freedoms, and manipulating and shutting down the media.

The Charter revolves around the notion of an "unconstitutional interruption" in the democratic order, the Constitution being understood not as a straightjacket but as an order overseen by a democratic culture capable of countering any authoritarian ploys. Many different actions can thus cause an alteration in the constitutional regime or affect the democratic process, but were inconceivable to the framers of the inter-American system. This is where the inter-American system should come into play, with the OAS at the helm, to defend democracy until it is restored.

At the Summit of the Americas held in Quebec in April, an agreement was reached, as set forth the Declaration of Quebec City and the Action Plan of the Summit, reflecting the unbreakable bond between democracy and development previously recognized. The Inter-American Development Bank took the initiative to help introduce this concept of the interdependence of democracy and development as a condition for fighting poverty and inequality, on the grounds that authoritarian principles are not the best stimulus for development. Enrique V. Iglesias has repeatedly stated that politics is the most sensitive link between institutions and the economy and is therefore important for development. In Latin America, the exercise of politics has yet to take place in the context of democracy.

The Democratic Charter has its roots in the democratic clause approved at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The clause is one of the clearest achievements of the Summit in terms of political development and democratic governance. The magnitude of this feat is directly connected to the priorities set in the development agenda for the new century. It assumes collective action to defend democracy that may lead to the imposition of diplomatic sanctions against governments that seize power illegitimately or that, having taken power through free elections, adversely affect democratic institutions through the arbitrary exercise of that power.

The significance of the democratic clause is that it is presented not merely as a rhetorical statement, but as an effective mechanism for future exclusion from the benefits of political, economic, and social integration in the Hemisphere. For example, activating the clause would even affect opportunities for financing from multilateral institutions, since the spirit of the clause will become an irreplaceable working condition for all the institutions in the system. A resolution to that effect was adopted by the General Assembly in Costa Rica in June 2001, authorizing the IDB to implement the clause, with the obvious implications.

In sum, the Democratic Charter is another starting point. It has been described as a body of principles, standards, and mechanisms for action, structured and interlinked in a single document that constitutes a multilateral joint guarantee for the preservation and defense of democracy. However, Latin America has had plenty of nice rules on the books before but that have failed to be of any practical use when needed. The lack of credibility and legitimacy of political institutions in the region cannot be overcome simply by issuing international mandates. Yet a huge step in the right direction has been taken.

Politics has resumed the standing it had lost before September 11, since no one can now deny the need for a strong, smart, effective State that will guarantee democracy as a method of conflict resolution and protection of basic rights. But the challenges will be great for our democracies, which lack the antibodies of political culture. Like all vaccinations, the Charter will no doubt be tested during outbreaks of authoritarianism, as a result of a deficiency that is wreaking havoc on development in the region, the deficiency in good politics.

The Charter will have to demonstrate why, when even the most serious threats against the system loom, the only response must be the same instruments of democracy, without any excesses, without any interruptions, without any self-sacrificing. As César Gaviria noted, the Charter is also a manual and guidebook for democratic conduct, its greatest strength. Let us hope we see a great period of democratic teachings based on the Charter, on which its implementation and effectiveness will ultimately depend.

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