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Challenging CELAC's Sovereignty Doctrine

As the two-day CELAC Summit closed in Havana at the end of January, leaders of the 33 Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) nations that compose this body adopted a triumphant pose for the assembled photographers.

Why the celebratory atmosphere? One might be forgiven for thinking it was connected to the various grand ambitions articulated at the summit–the second since CELAC was created in 2011–in the spheres of education, disaster management, combating corruption and similar hot-button regional issues. But as far as the leaders present were concerned, the greatest triumph was in declaring CELAC a "zone of peace."

"Peace," in this case, is understood as "non-interference." In the words of the summit declaration, each CELAC member state has the "inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural system as an essential condition to guarantee peaceful co-existence among nations." (My emphasis.)

Put another way, if you are running a one-party state, like the Cubans, or a mafia state that fixes elections, like the Venezuelans, you have nothing to fear. It's perverse, but it's true: even leaders of strong democracies, like Costa Rica, have had the temerity to adopt the language of rights in order to rationalize and justify their silence about the denial of rights to the opposition in non-democratic countries!

Among those giving their blessing to the CELAC Summit were Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, and José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS)–ironically, a body that CELAC explicitly seeks to marginalize because of its rejection of the Cuban regime.

Sadly, neither had anything to say to give comfort to the region's dissidents. Nor did any of the national leaders who turned up in Havana, some of whom refused to meet with Cuban pro-democracy activists. As Yoani Sánchez, the popular Cuban blogger, pointed out on several occasions during the summit, CELAC's presence in Cuba provided the Castro regime with a license to crack down on its internal opponents. "Critical voices are silenced during the Celac summit: arrests, threats, mobiles cut," Sánchez tweeted.

Either because they don’t want to alienate part of their constituency at home or because belonging to the CELAC Club gives them economic or political benefits, Latin American and Caribbean leaders have been blackmailed to avoid criticizing systems that enable authoritarian leaders to concentrate power, crush dissent and persecute journalists.

In many ways, the final declaration is built on the long-established insistence of the region's foreign ministries that democracy and human rights are not as important as respect for each country’s sovereignty. It was this same doctrine that was invoked to defend Nicolás Maduro's seizure of power in Venezuela last year, amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging and the wholesale violation of the country's democratic constitution.

Significantly, this same doctrine has underwritten the attacks by authoritarian regimes upon the Inter-American Human Rights System of the OAS.

The absence of international pressure on non-democratic governments condemns regime opponents and dissidents—whether from political parties or civil society—to isolation, and reduces the possibilities of a regime change by democratic mechanisms. It was international pressure that forced General Augusto Pinochet's regime in Chile to organize and accept the results of a plebiscite; by the same token, can anyone see the Venezuelan regime organizing free and fair elections without the same sort of pressure?  

In 2001, though, we dared to hope for a different outcome. That was the year that the Democratic Charter of the OAS was approved—the first case of an international treaty which recognized democracy as an inherent right of peoples, and not just a political system that countries might or might not adopt. Though authoritarian regimes have greatly consolidated their power in the intervening years, and cases as such as the 2009 coup in Honduras have distorted the application of the instrument, the spirit of the Charter remains very much alive. 

Moreover, this is a good time to recall that a great deal of the impetus for the Charter came from 8,000 civil society organizations across the region, who were led by the energetic pro-democracy NGO in Lima, Transparencia Perú.

In the future, just as in the past, pressure for democratic reform will come from civil society. For that reason, pro-democracy organizations across the region should become more active at the international level.  Domestically, they should press their governments to bypass CELAC's sovereignty doctrine by giving aid to those who want nothing more and nothing less than a democratic, accountable government.

*Laura Rojas is a senior fellow at the Center for Democracy and Development in the Americas (CDDA) in Washington DC. She specializes in international political and economic issues and U.S.-Latin America relations. She is a commentator for CNN and NTN24 and her articles have appeared on Fox News Latino.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: CELAC, OAS, Cuba, Venezuela, democracy

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