The Democtratic Governance Agenda of the Organization of American States

By Adams, Francis | MACLAS Latin American Essays, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Democtratic Governance Agenda of the Organization of American States


Adams, Francis, MACLAS Latin American Essays


"The peoples of the American have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it." These words open the "Inter-American Democratic Charter" which was recently drafted by the Organization of American States (OAS). The charter goes on to specify procedures to follow should the constitutional system of any member state be threatened or interrupted. While the OAS champions the Democratic Charter as an important step in the hemispheric defense of democracy, people throughout Latin America have good reason for skepticism. Despite the transition from authoritarian rule, politics remains an exclusive club, with power concentrated in the lands of a narrow elite who benefit from the existing order and resist change. (1)

The Democratic Charter reflects a gradual evolution in the institutional mission of the Organization of American States (OAS 2000). The regional body has traditionally focused on security issues and generally refrained from intervening in the domestic political affairs of member states. In recent years, however, deference to national sovereignty has receded and the OAS has repeatedly adopted formal commitments to democratic governance. (2) The organization has also established a range of programs to further political reform in the region.

Exclusionary Political Systems

While competitive elections are generally considered the strongest evidence of Latin America's "re-democratization" during the past two decades, there remain weakness in the electoral processes of the region. Electoral manipulation, fraud, and coercion continue to compromise voting processes. Governing parties have sought to influence election rules, exclude opposition parties, pressure electoral commissions, and alter vote totals to ensure victory for their respective candidates. In some cases, violence has been used to harass and intimidate civilian populations during the electoral process.

The exclusionary nature of Latin American politics is also reflected in the region's political institutions with power concentrated in two fundamental respects. First, political authority is concentrated in national governments at the expense of state, local, and municipal governments. Federal governments control fiscal resources and tax collection, directly appoint local officials, and reserve the right to intervene in state and municipal affairs. Most laws and policies are formulated by national governments with little consultation of officials at sub-national levels. Second, political authority is largely concentrated in the executive branch with the powers of the president greatly exceeding those of the legislature and judiciary. Latin America presidents enjoy considerable powers to control public expenditures and set legislative agendas while judicial review is minimal.

Latin America's political transition has also been limited by the inability of civilian leaders to fully subordinate the armed forces. Although military officers have abandoned formal positions of power, they retain considerable influence over political affairs. Military elites also retain autonomy over a range of policy areas deemed "internal" to the armed forces. They typically enjoy fixed budgetary lines that cannot be adjusted by civilian governments. This produces annual defense budgets considerably larger than what could reasonably be justified by national security needs. Although, state-sponsored violence is not as extensive today as in the immediate past, and governments are formally committed to protecting human rights, leaders of opposition political parties, labor unions, and civil society organizations continue to be the targets of repression. Latin American militaries are frequently immune from civilian prosecution for human rights abuses and only accountable to specialized military tribunals. Civil liberties are also inadequately protected. …

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