When the National Endowment for Democracy was created 30 years ago, the third wave of democratization was beginning to crest in Latin America. With the fall of Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay and the restoration of democracy in Chile in 1989, and with Violeta Chamorro’s victory over the Sandinista’s the following year, all the countries of the region, with the exception of Cuba, were either democratic or in the process of making the transition to democracy.
It was a period of democratic confidence and enthusiasm. In 1991, the Oorganization of American States adopted the Santiago Declaration, pledging concerted action to restore democracy in the event of a coup. A decade later the organization adopted the more comprehensive Democratic Charter of the Americas, which pledged also to act against what it called “the alteration” of democracy, by which it meant the steady undermining of democracy by an elected autocratic government.
But, these pledges have not been fulfilled. With the notable exception of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the OAS system has largely stood by passively while democratic institutions such as a free press, an independent judiciary, a robust civil society, and free elections overseen by a neutral election commission have been steadily subverted by the ruling authorities in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries.
Venezuela, as we know, faces a dangerous crisis of political and social division following last month’s gravely flawed presidential election. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to its credit, has properly condemned the Venezuelan government for the violence that broke out in the National Assembly recently, and it has called for an independent investigation of the post-election killings.
But the OAS, despite calling for a recount of the vote, was represented at the inauguration of Nicolás Maduro, and Latin American government officials, with the exception of Peru’s Foreign Minister Rafael Roncagliolo, have evidently decided to ignore the deepening division in Venezuela and the urgent need for dialogue and bridge-building.
In Argentina, over one million people took to the streets last month to protest President Cristina Kirchner’s plans to curtail the media and take over the courts, but again, the inter-American system has been largely silent.
The government of Ecuador has all but abolished independent media, taking over five television channels, four radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines; and closing 11 other radio stations. The media monitoring organization Fundamedios reported 173 “acts of aggression” against journalists in 2012, including one killing and 13 assaults. Yet again, the response has been silence.
And in Cuba, brave democrats like Oswaldo Paya, Laura Pollán, and Harold Cepero have lost their lives under circumstances that cry out for independent investigation. Cuban activists, who continue the fight for democracy, are exposed to great danger and need political and moral support. But once again, there is silence.
To repeat, I applaud the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which itself is under attack by Ecuador and other opponents of democratic freedoms. But where is the Organization of American States? Of what value is the Democratic Charter of the Americas if the OAS and democratic leaders in the hemisphere stand by passively while the institutions of democracy are demolished and captured by unaccountable autocrats?
The picture is by no means all bleak. Democracy has made gains in Chile, Brazil, Peru and other countries, and significant progress has been made in the region in reducing poverty and inequality. Through some 150 grants annually, NED supports grassroots groups throughout the region that are working to advance democracy, often in the most difficult situations.
Moreover, despite the threat to democracy and human rights that I have noted, the opportunities for democratic progress are actually growing as the region’s populist autocracies are failing politically and economically, and with the Cuban dictatorship now entering what I believe is the final stage of its inexorable decline and inevitable fall.
But we can’t take advantage of these opportunities without a new rebirth of democratic solidarity. One of the twenty books written by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s father Enrique Ros, who died just last month at the age of 89, is entitled Cuba: Mambises Born in Other Lands. The book details the participation of foreigners in the struggle for Cuban independence during the last third of the 19th Century – not just American citizens and Dominicans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and Peruvians, but also people from Spain, France, Italy, Poland and even China.
The book conveys a message of democratic solidarity that is relevant today, but with one caveat. The challenge today is not liberating people from foreign oppression. It is supporting their nonviolent struggle for human rights and democratic citizenship against a controlling and oppressive state. It is this principle that we now have to proclaim and act upon.
To those who say that defending this principle in the case of people fighting for democratic rights against a home-grown dictatorship is interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, we should recall what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Lecture in 1970: “There are no INTERNAL AFFAIRS left on our crowded Earth! And mankind’s sole salvation lies in everyone making everything his business.”
If we act upon this principle in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean who are bravely fighting for freedom, and who need our moral and political support, we shall help fulfill the promise of a hemisphere united in freedom and democracy. And if that promise is fulfilled, we will give hope to brave people in other regions of the world who are engaged in the same struggle for democratic freedoms and human dignity.
Carl Gershman who has been president of the National Endowment for Democracy since its 1984 founding. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered recently upon receiving the Leadership Award from the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute.