Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears to have survived an August 15 referendum that might have recalled him from power. This is certain to disappoint the Bush administration, whose earlier embrace of a failed military coup and open disregard for political neutrality in the hemisphere emboldened the populist president and enabled him to deflect attention from his own slow assault on democratic institutions. In the end, the Bush administration may have contributed to a referendum victory for Chavez.

Venezuela provides but one example of the Bush administration's missteps on democracy. The administration has touted its commitment to promoting democracy in the Middle East and around the globe, arguing correctly that democracy is an essential component of a peaceful and prosperous world. Yet in our own hemisphere, the administration's policies have not only eroded America's authority as a defender of democracy, but have also turned back democratic gains throughout the region.

In some countries, the Bush administration has disregarded the neutrality of the electoral process and instead unabashedly expressed support for individual candidates. In others, the administration has countenanced and even endorsed breaks in constitutional order to replace elected leaders with figures more to its liking, and thus also undermined the multilateral commitments that have evolved over the last decade to defend democracy in the hemisphere. And at a time when democracies in the region are struggling for their survival, the administration has cut foreign aid for many elected governments, while miraculously finding funds to support its ideologically-motivated activities, namely in Cuba.

The Bush administration can help to regain its credibility on democracy and reverse the democratic rollback in the region by:

  • Unconditionally supporting democracy and constitutional order in Venezuela despite Chavez's referendum victory;
  • Joining and financially supporting the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Brazil in facilitating a process of national reconciliation in Haiti;
  • Securing a bipartisan pledge in Congress to ensure a long-term commitment to provide assistance to Haiti;
  • Expanding efforts to work with other countries in the hemisphere – such as Brazil – to address political crises;
  • Making a serious effort to find funding to support struggling democracies in the region; and
  • Creating a Council for Democracy within the Organization of American States (OAS).

The Americas have witnessed great democratic change over the last twenty years, as citizens have broken the reign of military governments and reconciled the deep political divisions within their communities. By the end of the Cold War, people believed for the first time that the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean shared interests – in this case, a desire to defend democratic norms and rights, and liberate the countries of the region from the dictatorship and foreign intervention of the past. For many years, efforts to support the growth of democracy in the Americas enjoyed bipartisan support. The administration of George W. Bush negotiated the peace agreements that helped to launch this new era, while the Clinton administration developed a framework for improving hemispheric relations.

The growing consensus on democracy in the region led to an unprecedented series of multilateral commitments to protect democratic processes and elected governments. At the 1989 General Assembly meeting of the OAS, all 34 participating governments[1] issued the joint Santiago Declaration pledging their commitment to defend each other against any reversal of democratic order. Two years later, the declaration grew teeth when the OAS approved Resolution 1080, establishing the legal and procedural means committing governments to defend against the "unconstitutional interruption of democratic power" among member states. When the power of Resolution 1080 was challenged by events in Peru,[2] the OAS approved in 2001 the Democratic Charter, which better defined threats to democratic order and established new ways to address them.

This process of political convergence was accompanied by an unprecedented trend toward economic integration, initiated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). With NAFTA came the idea of creating a regional free trade zone that would link the economies of the region into one market. This vision was made possible by the hemisphere-wide trend of economic reform that tore down decades-old trade barriers, rationalized the public sector and established stable fiscal and currency policies. At the time, many saw a felicitous convergence between trade and market-based economic growth, and democratic development.

In 1994, the Clinton administration launched the Summit of the Americas process, through which elected presidents committed themselves to establishing the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). But the Summit and FTAA processes meant much more than trade. They demonstrated a remarkable convergence of vision and interests, encompassing shared goals of economic, political, and social integration and change. Coupled with the collective commitments to defend democracy, our hemisphere was presented an unprecedented opportunity to achieve peace and prosperity.

Of course democracy is not easy. The elected leaders of the region have struggled to meet their citizens' expectations of democratic change and economic integration in the face of rising economic inequality, increased poverty and continuing corruption. And while the region experienced advances in free trade, the institutional reforms required to distribute the benefits of trade to the broader population have been missing. Economic despair is so pervasive that more than half of those polled in a study commissioned by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) said they would prefer authoritarian to democratic government if it meant easing their economic hardship.

With democracy on tenuous grounds, the United States has an even greater interest in supporting efforts to strengthen democratic practices and institutions in the region. But instead of standing behind the democratic process, working with multilateral organizations to defend democracy, and providing leaders with the support they need to consolidate their democracies, the Bush administration has denigrated democracy and destroyed its own credibility.

Favoring Candidates

The Bush administration has developed a reputation around the world for being ideologically driven and unbending. In the Americas, it has expressed that will by unabashedly interfering in elections, expressing preferences for candidates rather than allowing people to select their leaders and hold poor choices accountable by voting them out in future elections. While supporting candidates friendly to the United States might meet our country's short-term interests, in the longer term the administration is cheapening the democratic process and strengthening the ability of undemocratic leaders to rule in an undemocratic way.

In Nicaragua in 2001, U.S. Ambassador Oliver Garza appeared on the campaign trail with ruling party presidential candidate Enrique Bolaños, who was challenging Sandinista Daniel Ortega. The U.S. Embassy invited Bolaños to join the ambassador in handing out food to the poor. In another instance, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida ran an advertisement in La Prensa, Nicaragua's main newspaper, entitled, "George W. Bush Supports Enrique Bolaños." The ad described Ortega as "an enemy of everything the United States represents," and Enrique Bolaños as "a man whose past promises a future of freedom."

In 2002, U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha warned the Bolivian people that the United States would discontinue aid if they elected Evo Morales, the leader of the coca growers, as the country's president. Some analysts believe that Morales' popularity grew in protest to the Bush administration's intervention.

In 2004, Salvadorans elected center-right presidential candidate Tony Saca over Schafik Handal, the candidate of the former guerilla party, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). During the campaign, U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega and Special Envoy Otto Reich, warned about the possible trade, economic and migratory consequences of an FMLN victory.

Furthermore, just before the election, Republican Congressman Thomas Tancredo promised to introduce legislation that would complicate the ability of Salvadoran-Americans to send remittances to their families in El Salvador should the FMLN win the election. This was a worrisome threat, as Salvadorans depend upon the more than $2 billion they receive from their family members in the United States for survival. U.S. actions served to polarize Salvadoran politics, as Saca campaigned as the candidate who could protect remittances, while Handal seized on the anti-Americanism that the U.S. intervention generated.

Failing to Defend Constitutional Order and the Multilateral Process

The Bush administration has at best failed to prevent and at worst encouraged breaks in constitutional order in several countries to remove governments not to its liking. Furthermore, the administration has ignored the region's multilateral organizations that have become important instruments for collective support for democracy. Venezuela and Haiti serve as cases in point.

In Venezuela, Bush administration missteps have seriously undermined its ability to play a constructive role in resolving the political crisis and unwittingly strengthened the hand of the country's undemocratic leader. A former coup leader elected president in 1998 and 2000 under a new constitution, Chavez's lack of regard for democratic institutions and his polarizing style represent a threat to democracy in Venezuela and the hemisphere. But it is precisely the nationalistic and populist appeal of this elected leader that has required a level of multilateral engagement and diplomatic tact that the Bush administration has sorely lacked.

In April 2002, Chavez was temporarily unseated by a handful of military officers and some segments of the opposition. Rather than demanding the return of the elected leader to office, the Bush administration accepted the new government and – for good measure – blamed Chavez for the coup. A State Department statement read: "Yesterday's events in Venezuela resulted in a transition government until new elections can be held. Though details are still unclear, undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday's crisis in Venezuela."

Furthermore, the Bush administration issued its statement without consulting with the OAS, violating the standard practice the countries of the region had established over the previous decade. One former Mexican official described the administration's actions in Venezuela as "multilateralism a la carte and democracy a la carte."[3]

Shortly thereafter, when popular protests against the coup spread across the city and the military returned Chavez to power, the administration found itself in an embarrassing bind: the man whose departure they had just welcomed was back in the saddle. After that point, any attempts by the Bush administration to speak out in defense of democracy in Venezuela have been dismissed by the Chavez government and even some other nations in the hemisphere as partisan intervention against the leftist president.

The political crisis continued. In May 2003, the OAS, UNDP and The Carter Center, a non-governmental organization, negotiated an agreement between Chavez and the opposition to respect Article 72 of the Venezuelan constitution that permits citizens to request – if they can gather the signatures of 20 percent of registered voters – a recall referendum on an elected leader halfway through his or her term. After prolonged efforts by the Chavez government to prevent the referendum, the date was set for August 15, 2004.

Ironically, the Bush administration's tacit support for the coup may have contributed to what, according to the official results, appears to be a referendum victory for Chavez. Many Venezuelans interpreted what were legitimate Bush administration criticisms of the Chavez government to be nothing more than efforts to remove their president. Chavez exploited this perception in his campaign, rallying nationalistic support and discrediting the opposition. On the last day of the campaign, Chavez declared that the referendum was not about "…whether Chavez stays or Chavez goes [it] is whether Venezuela continues to be a sovereign state or turns into a Latin American colony." He stated boldly, "Bush's government will be defeated on Sunday." Now, with what appears to be victory under his belt, Chavez is in an even stronger position to erode democratic rights and institutions, and to stir up anti-American sentiment around the region.

In Haiti, the Bush administration's actions have similarly destroyed its credibility and set back democracy. The administration and its allies were never shy about their dislike for President Jean Bertrand Aristide. In fact, it was no secret that many Republicans opposed the Clinton administration's policy to restore President Aristide to power after he was ousted in a military coup in 1991. After Aristide's return to power, the Republicans in Congress encouraged the opposition to refuse to negotiate with Aristide, with the hope that he would fall of his own accord. Their efforts to strengthen the opposition over the years – while Aristide was consolidating his own power – made it impossible for the two sides to compromise on any matter.

As armed insurgents began to take over the country in February 2004, the OAS and CARICOM sought to broker a peace deal. But instead of rallying behind these multilateral efforts, the United States – with a wink and a nod to the insurgents – appeared on Aristide's doorstep to escort him from the country.

Aristide was no saint or even, arguably, a democrat. But instead of standing behind the efforts of the OAS and CARICOM to foster a compromise that would have upheld the constitution, the United States acted unilaterally – and in an unprincipled fashion – to achieve its favored result. In the process, the administration devalued the important role of these multilateral organizations in resolving political crises. It set the stage for political turmoil to come, as Haitians debate the removal of their leader and Aristide makes plans to return to the country. Most unfortunately, the Bush administration reinforced to Haitians – who have struggled with democracy – the message that violence is a legitimate means to political change.

Providing Support Based on Ideology

Resources to support democratic regimes in the hemisphere have dried up under the Bush administration, undermining allies struggling to consolidate democracy in their countries. As Secretary of State Colin Powell said in his February 2004 testimony before the House International Relations Committee: "We have reduced the overall amount of funding [for Latin America and the Caribbean] because we had higher priorities that we had to deal with, of a more serious nature. It's one of these trade-offs we make." However, in cases that advance its ideological agenda – for example, support to opposition movements in Cuba, Venezuela, and Haiti under Aristide – the administration has miraculously turned up substantial funding.

To illustrate, the Bush administration turned its back on one of its key allies in the war on drugs – Bolivia. In 2003, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada requested emergency assistance to deal with popular unrest stemming in part from the U.S.-backed drug eradication program. The Bush administration declined his request. Several months later, a backlash led by the head of the coca growers union pushed the president from power. As Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development said, "This is a case where the United States, for a paltry amount of money, could have helped secure a country in Latin America." The failure of the United States to come through with assistance also undermined U.S. anti-narcotics efforts and, according to a bi-partisan Commission on Weak States and U.S. National Security, has raised the risk that Bolivia will become a threat to U.S. and regional security should narcotics traffickers gain power. [4]

In contrast, in 2004 the Bush administration committed millions of dollars to implement the recommendations issued in a much-anticipated Cuba Commission Report, led by Otto Reich. Included in the exhaustive 400-page plan for democracy was a bizarre proposal to increase Radio and T.V. Marti broadcasts by beaming them into the island by military plane (at an unknown expense). In the report, the administration also promised to add an additional $29 million to the $7 million already spent on supporting publications and independent activity in Cuba – a country of only 11 million people. Dissidents in the island – the very people the measures are supposed to help – immediately criticized the report and its policy prescriptions.

For many countries in the hemisphere, the report confirmed their worst fears: that for the Bush administration, democracy is an ideologically defined concept and selectively applied. Regardless of the merit of the increased funding for Cuba, it is unfortunate that the administration cannot grant similar attention and funding to meet the needs of elected governments in the region whose survival is on the line.

As we have seen, the Bush administration has destroyed the credibility of the United States as a defender of democracy and rolled back democratic gains in the Americas. The administration must take immediate steps to right its wrongs and reaffirm its commitment to democracy in the region. The administration must:

  • Unconditionally support democracy and constitutional order in Venezuela – regardless of the result. Controversy is likely to ensue in Venezuela; at the time of this writing, the official results point to Chavez as the victor, while opposition leaders are claiming fraud. If credible nonpartisan observers determine that the process was free and fair, the administration must send a clear and consistent message of support for the process and call for both sides to respect the outcome. Should nonpartisan observers determine that problems in the process affected the result, the administration must state that it will only tolerate a constitutional solution and then stand behind multilateral efforts to resolve it. Should Chavez retain his seat, the administration should begin working with other governments in the region as soon as possible to remind the president that democracy is more than just elections and that he must respect democratic institutions.
  • Join and financially support CARICOM and Brazil in facilitating a process of national reconciliation in Haiti. CARICOM and Brazil are two important actors in current reconciliation and peacekeeping efforts in Haiti. The United States should join them in facilitating a dialogue that includes all actors, including members of Aristide's political party. As part of this effort, the United States should demand – through its contacts within the anti-Aristide movement – that attacks on Aristide supporters cease immediately.
  • The administration should secure a bipartisan pledge in Congress to ensure a long-term commitment to provide assistance to Haiti. While the United States has joined other countries and international organizations in together pledging over $1 billion in grants and loans to Haiti, the commitment is only intended to meet Haiti's $1.365 billion need through September 2006. As recent history has shown, such short-term commitments to rebuilding Haiti have been vulnerable to political and financial meddling by Congress that stymied efforts to make substantial progress. Unfortunately, the same factions within Congress that argued over whether to invest in Haiti when Aristide was in power remain divided over the question of his ousting, and the administration has done little to build consensus on how to move forward. Thus, the administration – members of which argued against supporting Haiti when Aristide's party was in charge – must now forge a bipartisan agreement in Congress, committing the legislature to a long-term investment in Haiti regardless of who is in power. As in Venezuela, the administration must signal that it will accept the results of any free and fair electoral process in 2005.
  • Expand efforts to work with other countries in the hemisphere – such as Brazil – to address political crises. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is greatly respected throughout the democratic left, is eager to play a leading role in the region and around the world. A joint U.S.-Brazilian effort could send a strong message of respect for democracy and constitutional order, emphasizing that the U.S. quibble is not with the left, but with undemocratic leaders of any ideological persuasion. U.S.-Brazilian cooperation in resolving crises of democracy would have the added benefit of strengthening relations and helping to resolve the nations' trade and other disagreements.
  • Make a serious effort to find funding to support struggling democracies in the region. The administration must make clear that it is as serious about defending democratic gains in the hemisphere as it is about promoting democracy in Cuba and other countries that fit into its ideological agenda. Thus, the administration should increase funding for democratic reform to elected governments to improve judicial systems, address growing poverty and social inequality, and improve political representation. The administration should also create a flexible emergency fund to support regimes facing popular upheaval, so that the events in Bolivia are not repeated.
  • Create a Council for Democracy in the OAS. The Bush administration could repair the damage it has done to the OAS framework by seeking to establish a Council for Democracy within the OAS that would independently monitor democratic developments in the region. Such a council would be similar in its relationship to the OAS to the esteemed Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, in which leading statesmen and scholars appointed by member states monitor and report on human rights trends in the region. An independent and highly-respected Council for Democracy could pronounce on democratic trends in the region, renewing the one-time consensus around democracy and restoring credibility to the role of the United States in promoting democracy in the hemisphere.

Nicole Mlade is a senior policy analyst for national security at the Center for American Progress. She and Paul James (a pseudonym) have a combined 16 years of experience promoting democracy and human rights in the Americas.

[1] While Cuba remains a member of the OAS, its government has been suspended.

[2] Shortly after being approved, resolution 1080 was invoked in 1991 after the military seized power in Haiti, and was useful in rolling back coup attempts in Peru (1992), Guatemala (1993) and Paraguay (1996). The OAS determined that it needed an even stronger mechanism when, in 2000, the elected government of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori itself eroded democratic norms and institutions, and flagrantly attempted to steal an election.

[3] "U.S. Seen as Weak Patron of Latin Democracy," by Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, Tuesday, April 16, 2002.

[4] "Bolivia, an example of a nation that needs lots of help to survive," Andres Oppenheimer, Miami Herald, June 10, 2004.

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