Foreign ministers from 34 of the 35 countries in the Americas met this week in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the 35th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), to discuss what they can collectively do to strengthen democracy throughout the region.
Despite their best efforts to avoid a serious treatment of the subject being featured, the question was forced onto the agenda by the letter of resignation that Bolivian president Carlos Mesa tendered to the national congress on the evening of June 6th, which was accepted by the Bolivian Congress on June 10th.
Discussion of this latest crisis in democracy was relatively brief, despite a spirited attempt at a detailed treatment of the ramifications of the Bolivian crisis for the rest of the Americas.
After Bolivian foreign minister Juan Ignacio Siles provided credible assurances that his country was not facing a constitutional crisis, Panamanian foreign minister Samuel Lewis Navarro asked his colleague the provocative and potentially explosive question of what the OAS should do to be of assistance in situations such as this one.
This dangerous possible segway into a discussion of concrete action was cut short by means of an act of closure of the General Assembly’s debate on the subject.
The matter was subsequently referred to newly installed OAS General Secretary Jose Miguel Insulza, who was charged with drafting the boilerplate declaration of support for democracy in Bolivia.
It was not helpful that Siles was prevented from taking up Navarro’s question, even if only to artfully dodge the substance of the issue with impromptu diplomatic virtuosity.
Throughout the three days of the Inter-American meeting, delegates were engaged in a fierce debate over what the final draft of the U.S.-pushed Declaration of Florida should say.
Should it, as Washington wished, call for a strong OAS to act as a regional democratic policeman, judging the quality of hemispheric democracy and levying sanctions upon those countries judged to be governing undemocratically?
Or, as countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Panama suggested, should the OAS instead act as a watchdog that would merely express concern when the democratic prospects of a given member state were judged to be in jeopardy?
As the events in Bolivia and the understated text of the Declaration of Florida revealed, such questions tend to flirt with irrelevance.
A common theme running through the hours of official statements made by the assembled foreign ministers before the four plenary sessions was a strong sense that a democratic police force is not the answer to the region’s fundamental travails.
The real challenge afflicting democracy, ministers obliquely noted, is not so much a hemispheric proclivity for authoritarianism, but the U.S.-encouraged widespread, if not at all scientific belief that democratic governance will beget immediate economic growth, thus inexorably increasing a nation’s democratic contents.
Indeed, the U.S. team led by President Bush and Secretary of State Rice held true to this leitmotif throughout the General Assembly gathering.
The problem for hemispheric democracy is that this has in some places created unrealistic expectations of immediate material improvements after elections.
In other countries, such as Bolivia, it has engendered serious frustration that representative participation in the policy process more often than not has only resulted in a decline in living conditions for the majority.
The problem facing hemispheric leaders that became fully apparent in Florida is frightening in its simplicity: how are regional governments to preserve democracy when democracy is patently not delivering the promised socio-economic benefits that have been repeatedly promised since the early 1990s?
Disagreements over the answer to this question point to a growing conceptual divide in the Americas, one that is colored by an increasing insistence on social equity and inclusion and not the U.S.-promoted and often specious neoliberal economics, as the key to preserving democracy and providing the political stability needed for the growth and increased trade desired by all.
The growing Latin American insistence on a socially equitable basis for economic and policy reforms, demonstrated in market friendly terms by the Lula government in Brazil and in a more fustian fashion by Chávez in Venezuela, is a slow and extremely complicated undertaking.
The question for the upcoming 4th Summit of the Americas in Argentina and future General Assemblies inevitably will be whether the Bush administration will have the perspicacity to recognize this feat, reject simplistic, ideologically-driven answers, and join with the rest of the hemisphere in the sort of open partnership that will genuinely address the authentic sources of the kind of political tensions now being unleashed in Bolivia.
Sean Burges is a Senior Research Fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and a Research Fellow with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Canada. He led the COHA contingent in attendance at the 35th OAS General Assembly.