Looking Back on Fort Lauderdale

If there were a sustained theme at the 35th OAS General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, it was that democracy withers when a country is plagued by poverty and inequality. As if to reinforce this point, Carlos Mesa, the currently embattled president of Bolivia, submitted his resignation to congress on June 6th. At the OAS gathering, the immediate response to this latest crisis to the inter-American system from the assembled foreign ministers was less than resounding.

Although the diplomats who gathered at Fort Lauderdale may have been comforted by Foreign Minister Juan Ignacio Siles’ assurances that Bolivia would adhere to the constitutional path and that Mesa would continue to fulfill his presidential duties until the congress reached a decision on proferring his resignation, substantive reaction at the meeting was surprisingly tepid. Drawing on the General Assembly’s theme of working to advance democracy, Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis Navarro attempted to promote a collective response by pointedly asking Siles what Bolivia would have the OAS now do to help deal with the situation. This pointed and potentially very revealing question was quickly put down by the meeting’s chair. Newly inaugurated OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza then called for patience to allow the situation to develop and asked for consultations with members to draft a collective declaration on political developments in Bolivia, naming first the neighboring countries of the Andean Community and MERCOSUR, but quickly expanding the list to include members of CARICOM and members of the Central American Common Market.

The OAS response to developments in Bolivia mirrors the confusion facing the drafters of the Declaration of Florida, a U.S.-led initiative that attempts to transform the OAS into a democracy monitoring and enforcement mechanism. The majority of countries in the hemisphere are understandably uneasy with Washington’s proposal to create an organism that might sit in judgment over their own capacity for rectitude as well as the probity of their respective political systems. Indeed, such a mechanism would have done nothing to prevent events coming to a head in Bolivia. Mesa was not being forced from office. Rather, as his foreign minister told the OAS General Assembly, he has done little more than decide that his presence in the presidential palace was becoming a central barrier to the progress of his country. By tendering his resignation to congress, Mesa has given that body the option of accepting it and then following the constitutional mechanisms of succession, or rejecting his bid to step down. This latter step was the one that was chosen last March when Mesa, again in the face of massive protests and legislative stonewalling on key bills, tendered his resignation as a political strategy to push forward his agenda, which was largely opposed by the country’s indigenous population.

Other Countries Have Faced the Same Perspective
The strategy of threatening a presidential resignation as a goad to action is not a uniquely Bolivian invention, finding precedent in Eduardo Duhalde’s own gestures when combative factions in the Argentine congress paralyzed his reconstruction agenda in 2002. Mesa’s resort to this last ditch strategy is a clear indication of the larger problem facing democracy throughout the Americas; namely, widespread fear that despite electoral accountability, government policy remains focused on providing alternatives but mainly among privileges limited to the elite.

As repeated presentations at the OAS General Assembly made clear, people are becoming frustrated that democracy is not delivering the promised development results. With an overall poverty rate of 62.4 percent and a rural poverty rate of 79.2 percent, it is perhaps not surprising that Bolivians are taking to the streets to press for some indication of rapid improvements in their daily lives. Indeed, they are terrified that the potential wealth of the massive natural gas reserves in the southern part of the country will be squandered in the same manner that exhausted deposits of tin, silver and nitrates over the nation’s long and bitter history. This would deprive the country of the funds generated by such exports that were in the main wasted rather than being allocated to desperately needed development projects which could lift the characteristically low living standards of Bolivians.

What Does Bolivia Teach the OAS?
The OAS can draw two critical lessons from Bolivia’s current crisis. The first is that democracy cannot be imposed or expected to function smoothly unless it is grounded in a country’s socio-economic reality and reflects it. Nothing in the proposed Declaration of Florida, including its measures calling on OAS members to apply almost-punitive sanctions on countries experiencing democratic set backs, would resolve the situation in Bolivia. Second, hemispheric countries would do well to stop confusing democracy with economic development. The rhetoric of the last fifteen years has created a clear link in the Latin American public’s mind between the adoption of democratic practices and rapid private sector-driven economic growth. While the two reinforce each other, democracy by itself does not create economic growth. Therefore serious attention needs to be given to expanding grassroots economic initiatives; these may necessarily fall beyond the fencing being staked out by the large trade arrangements favored by giant multinational corporations and government trade ministries.

The interplay of social, economic and political forces within a democratic political system is extremely complicated and far more complex than recent hemispheric declarations have suggested. As a succession of statements at the 35th General Assembly acknowledged this complexity. Events in Bolivia provide unexpected proof that a substantial change in thinking is necessary as the workings of a democratic polity do not necessarily center only on election day.

Rice’s Message to the OAS
In her speech delivered at the OAS meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for the strengthening of weak democracies in the region in order to combat the hovering threat of authoritarian rule. While some countries, such as Chile–Washington’s loyal, if sometimes ill-treated servitor – backed Rice’s appeal for the regional body to reinforce democracy among its membership, others, such as Brazil, exhibited a far more cautious perspective. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez emphatically rejected the proposal and viewed it as an attempt by the U.S. to use the OAS as a tool to further promote U.S. goals and interests. Citing Bolivia, Haiti, and Ecuador as examples of countries with weakened democratic institutions, Rice emphasized that it was an OAS responsibility to aid these countries in the assertion of their “right to democracy.” Conversely, Chávez (who the U.S. lexicon has labeled as “undemocratic”) asserted that Venezuela will no longer tolerate U.S. interference in the region as he himself continues to aggressively promote Latin American unity. Met by a wall of vigorous dissent, Rice, fronting for the U.S.’ efforts to win OAS support to promote a democracy featuring a private sector core, undoubtedly faces formidable challenges, partially because it is not a slam dunk that this is the U.S. century – at least as it is being seen from Latin America.

As underlined at Fort Lauderdale, Chávez continues to actively pursue a growing leadership role in the region, while the U.S. has grown increasingly determined to thwart his influence through its own bold means. However, despite these efforts, the Venezuelan leader has proven more than a fair match for Rice when it comes to providing the region with a vision for a better future, unscored by U.S. control. While many curiously await further chapters in the U.S.-Venezuelan interaction, Washington would be wise to prepare itself for a stronger, more united Latin America and for a widening attrition of support for its often overbearing hemispheric presence.