On Aug. 8, 12 countries in Latin America raised their voices to oppose Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s move from democracy to autocracy. In a meeting convened in Lima, Peru, foreign ministers from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru publicly denounced the Maduro government’s Constituent Assembly, convened to rewrite the country’s 17-year-old constitution, and declared that they would not recognize any laws or contracts approved by the assembly that should be the responsibility of the democratically elected national legislature.
The 12 nations’ efforts came after more than a decade during which Hugo Chávez (Venezuela’s president from 1999 to 2013) and his successor, Maduro (2013 to present), undercut democratic institutions, cracked down on human rights and brought to the country economic, social and political chaos.
Why were they silent so long? Theory and rhetoric have led many to believe that elected governments are more prone to support human rights and democracy. As recently as 2001, 34 of the Western Hemisphere’s 35 states had signed the charter of the Organization of American States, publicly committing themselves to promoting democracy. But that commitment has not always been in evidence.
At Global Americans, we’ve recently researched the intersection of elected governments and Latin American foreign policy and found that elections do not necessarily result in respect for human rights. In some cases, the hemisphere’s elected governments have actually worked to undermine the international norms and institutions that defend human rights and democracy.
Here’s how we did our research
We examined the voting records of Latin American governments in the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), their activities in the regional Inter-American System of Human Rights and the Organization of American States (OAS), and their commitment to international standards for free and fair elections from 2011 to May 2017.
We found that a subset of countries with elected governments across the region tend to vote more with nondemocratic or semi-authoritarian countries, such as Russia, China and Turkey, and often failed to speak out forcefully in multilateral bodies over human rights abuses.
Of the 47 total members in the UNHRC, eight seats are reserved for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Since 2016, the members from Latin America and the Caribbean have been Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela.
So how have these elected governments voted on human rights questions?
When voting on resolutions or other actions related to questions in Syria, North Korea and Ukraine, half those countries — Brazil, El Salvador, Panama and Paraguay — often voted to enable the United Nations to defend human rights. However, the other half — Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela — voted with Russia, China and Turkey to protect government sovereignty and deny outsiders like the U.N. the ability to “interfere” with the domestic affairs of countries.
Of course, Cuba and Venezuela are not true democracies. But Bolivia and Ecuador both have elected governments. And Brazil, when governed by Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva and then Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, abstained on human rights resolutions on North Korea (once) and Ukraine (twice). Similarly, Argentina, under the Peronist government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, abstained from the second Ukraine human rights resolution. Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia have never voted in favor of a resolution on Syria. And Ecuador has voted against resolutions three times and abstained 11 times, although it has twice voted in favor reprimanding Syrian human rights violations.
We found similar patterns in regional multilateral bodies such as the OAS and its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
In the past year, the OAS has twice attempted to pass a resolution expressing concern over the deterioration of human rights and democracy in Venezuela. Each time, the organization failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote. Opposed were an ideological coalition of pro-Venezuela governments, grouped as Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA), that includes Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, as well as a bloc of PetroCaribe countries (including the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas) that benefit from subsidized Venezuelan oil.
In the most recent vote at the OAS General Assembly in June of this year, Mexico and Argentina sponsored a resolution condemning the Venezuelan government’s plan to rewrite the constitution – a controversial move widely considered anti-democratic. The elected governments of Nicaragua, Dominica, Bolivia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines voted against the resolution. And the Dominican Republic, another elected government, abstained.
Why do these elected governments hold back from condemning violations of human rights and democratic norms?
Many of these governments, especially among the ALBA countries, profess ideological sympathy with the Chávez/Maduro government’s leftward leanings.
But others resist both popular sovereignty as well as international norms to defend human rights. The Dominican Republic’s government, for instance, has itself been condemned for violating human rights, particularly stripping the citizenship of and deporting Dominican citizens of Haitian descent. Faced with international criticism of that effort, in 2014 the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court removed it from the jurisdiction of the Inter-American System of Human Rights.
The Western Hemisphere includes many elected governments that have emerged from being ruled by brutal military juntas — but they have not necessarily stood up for democratic values for their neighbors. The Lima declaration shows that positions do shift. Some of the countries that finally condemned Venezuela have traditionally stood up for human rights, including Costa Rica and Chile. Some that signed on did so after a change in administration, as in Argentina and Brazil.
But most of the 32 elected governments have nevertheless failed to unify on behalf of democratic values. Being elected, apparently, does not necessarily translate into standing firmly for democracy.
Christopher Sabatini is a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive director of Global Americans.
Jimena Galindo is a research associate at Global Americans.