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The United States and the OAS

From Democracy Backgrounder, a publication of the Interhemispheric Resource Center, Vol. 1, no. 3, 6 September 1995

Stephen J. Schnably.
"The Santiago Commitment as a Call to Democracy in the United States: Evaluating the OAS Role in Haiti, Peru, and Guatemala." Inter-American Law Review. Spring-Summer 1994.

This essay brings welcome relief from the multitude of academic studies that start with the assumption that the United States plays a mainly positive role in the democratization process in this hemisphere and that it's the integrity of the U.S. political process that makes the United States the world's leading force for democracy. In examining the new commitment of the Organization of American States (OAS) to stand behind the region's political democracies, Schnably, a law professor at the University of Miami, finds that the U.S. commitment to hemispheric democratization does not measure up to its lofty rhetoric. Moreover, he concludes the shortcomings of the U.S. democratic system help explain why the United States has not taken a stronger stance against threats to Latin American democracies.

This essay is valuable not only for its critical evaluation of the OAS and U.S. roles in the defense of democracy but also for the detailed chronicle it provides of recent political events in Guatemala, Haiti, and Peru--the three countries where Latin America's democratization process has been most directly threatened in the 1990s. In addition, the author offers a provocative analysis of why greater democracy at home would increase the prospects for democracy abroad. Finally, the superb referencing makes this 194-page essay essential reading for democracy scholars and activists.

In June 1991 OAS members adopted the "Santiago Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American System," which moved the Latin American nations closer to a more activist position toward military coups. The commitment to "strengthening representative democracy" pushed member nations further away from past concerns about outside intervention in domestic political affairs. Coups in Haiti, Peru, and Guatemala soon tested the resolve of the OAS, and Schnably found this resolve to be weak and wavering. An array of weapons--diplomatic pressure, trade embargoes, aid cut-offs, and military intervention--were brought to bear on the undemocratic regimes of those three states.

In the case of Guatemala, the OAS actions were not the significant factor in returing the country to constitutional rule. According to the author, "Even the full restoration of constitutional government in Guatemala does not guarantee that the underlying barriers to democracy--severe social and economic inequality and a military largely out of the civilian government's control--will be surmounted." Furthermore, the OAS response to the coups in Haiti and Peru was half-hearted at best, and manipulative at worst."

Schnably argues that part of the difficulty in protecting democratic advances lies with the United States, which, in these and other cases of coups or threats of coups, has failed to demonstrate an abiding commitment to democratization. He criticizes U.S. human rights activists to failing to recognize the close connection between the state of democracy in the United States and the performance of regional mechanisms like the Santiago Commitment. To make the United States more democratic he prescribes: "the integration of economic and social rights into our own concepion of human rights" and "an expansion of our notion of the proper domain of the democratic ideal to include work and areas of life currently viewed as private."

In addition, Schnably makes specific recommendations of ways in which the OAS can force member states to take their commitment to democracy more seriously. For example, he suggests that the Santiago Commitment might be modified to provide for an automatic, escalating series of sanctions against newly installed military regimes, which would restict "the ability of the OAS member states to give little more than lip service to the goal of restoring an elected leader whose policies they dislike." Such was the case with Haiti because of the widespread criticism of the anti-elite politics of Aristide. In response to the military coup in Haiti, the United States, according to the author, "showed a great willingness not only to compromise respect for democracy in light of other interests but also to manipulate the record on human rights."

Finding a better way to promote and protect democratic advances in Latin America remains an important challenge in the region. Political developments in the first half of this decade "make clear that representative democracy has neither fully captured the popular imagination nor found solid institutional grounding."

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